Hi, I'm Chris, though I've been going by nekobun and variants thereof for so long, I kind of answer to both anymore.
While I've kind of got my own thing going in the realm of indie coverage, at least in the form of playing through (and streaming) (and writing about) the huge backlog I'm developing of games gleaned from various indie bundles, I try to keep my more mainstream, game-related features here, as well as opinion pieces on the industry at large, out of mad love for the 'toid. When I'm not rambling here or trying to be clever in comments threads, you can catch me rambling on Facebook and my Twitter, and trying to be clever in the Dtoid.tv chat.
Now Playing: 360: Halo 4
SNES: Secret Of Mana
I've discussed Slender and Slender Man's Shadow in the past, but in their wake has come a veritable onslaught of independent, free games flying a banner of "horror" and trying to get a piece of the YouTube scaredy-cat pie. In an effort to not afraid of anything, I've played a fair amount of them, and here's a rundown of some of the titles getting kicked around in the dark.
Forget Me Not Annie tries to take the psychological route when it comes to its fear, favoring atmospheric oppressiveness over jump scares (though there are a couple of those), and pairs its brooding terror with a first-person perspective and some interesting puzzles. The titular Annie is accompanied by a seemingly sentient teddy bear, attempting to escape some sort of facility and aided by his ability to swap places with her in space at any point. The game is effectively a demo, as its closing screen even admits, but it's an interesting glimpse at what its creators would have liked to do with more resources and time. The puzzles alone are a refreshing diversion from the usual "collect X y's" formula of "Slenderesques," and it would have been nice to experience a fuller telling of the story the game presented had it been finished.
Mangy Games' Candles comes off as fairly promising at first, starting players off in a dark forest, following the only available lit path to the unnamed character's home, where the lack of power forces you to rely on candles to light your way from room to room as you search for keys to the generator-housing basement. Imps lurk in the house's dark corners, which, while creepily designed, fail to be particularly scary. Their inability to approach lit areas without evaporating makes it easy to just pop in a bit, activating a room's candle, and then step back until one disappears, and while their glowing eyes seems intended to add to the imps' menace, it would've been more effective to place them in the periphery of players' views rather than smack in the middle of plain sight, making for some surprise attacks. The game's final sequence is also a bit borked on the physics side of things, to the point that it seems the game is actually broken when you're trying to accomplish the last task, so stick with it if you really need to see the ending. Candles is rather good-looking for an indie freebie, but its hobbled approach to horror sensibilities makes it feel half-baked.
Don't let its low-res imagery fool you; Ivan Zanotti's Imscared is brilliant. Not seeing fit to stay within the bounds of a game itself, Imscared extends its reach into your computer, creating files as you play through that expand and elaborate upon your experience that truly is a little freaky. The game's finish is a bit weaker than its onset, and there are some minor translation gaffes due to Zanotti being Italian and not entirely fluent in English, but they're easily overlooked once you've gotten underway. To say more, or to post screenshots of anything besides the environment, would ruin it, so let's just say this is truly a game for the after-dark, headphones-only crowd.
Set in the already bleak realm of a blasted-out, body-strewn, World War I battlefront trench, 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg (or The Unknown War, if you're not Deutsche-inclined) charges the player with one, seemingly simple task: find the ladder. The difficulty of said task increases dramatically upon your discovery of something else roaming the trenches, turning what starts as just a wander through unfamiliar territory into a heart-pounding, frantic flight for your life. The only hint I can give without spoiling anything is to look down; many of your fallen comrades bear items that you wouldn't expect to be useful in most cases, or even usable. Short, but sweet, and admittedly a bit frustrating until you start taking better stock of your environment, 1916 will give your pulse a run for its money.
Lauded by some horror game fans as one of the best indie scares out there, Erie drops you into an abandoned power plant where something terrible has, or perhaps still is, happening. Relying on repeat playthroughs to find optimal routes for avoiding whatever it is that stalks you through the plant's halls, Erie unfortunately succumbs to the growingly tiresome trope of turning a sneak for your life into a collect-a-thon. However, the collectibles scattered throughout the facility do a nice job of fleshing out the game's story, which is more than can be said for the pages in Slender or most other Slender-Man-inspired games, so they're worth going out of the way to obtain. This game also gives one of the best feelings of being completely and utterly screwed once the monster is on your trail, making it quite a bit scarier than some of the other games here.
This is just a sampling of some of the free horror offerings out there, and expect a follow-up or two once I get through a few more; for instance, I was going to do a section on creepypasta-based The Theater, until I learned there were two versions and I may have been playing the less polished (and more crash-tastic) of the two, and I'd like to give the other one a chance. Even with the less engaging ones, it's nice to see more aspiring gamemakers trying their hand at the horror genre, and reliance on the increasingly overplayed Slender Man card being slowly shunted aside for some truly original frights.
(EDIT 11/29/2012 - edited the title and a couple of other uses of the term "misogyny" out of things; a friend pointed out I was using the term far too lightly, and it didn't fit the message I intended. Just a terminology hot-swap; nothing else has changed.)
The recent #1Reason____ trends on Twitter, as discussed in Jim Sterling's post regarding them, are the latest in a long and steadily building cascade of outcry against the treatment of women in the world of videogames. There are some with the misguided cajones to try and say this sexism doesn't exist, and that the women complaining about it are just doing it for attention's sake, or because they can't cut it in a man's world, among other reasons.
I beg to differ. I beg you to shut your mouths and open your eyes. The issue here isn't just the mistreatment of women who are or who seek to be part of the industry. There's a condescending, chauvanist attitude pervading gaming across the board, be it in regards to game content and marketing, gamer interaction on all levels from casual to professsional, game-related media production and reactions, or the making of games themselves. For a scene that's been building for forty-plus years (sixty-five, if you want to go as far back as 1947's cathode-ray amusement device), mostly in far more progressive times than other, formerly male-dominated cultures that have seen great strides in gender equality, the sausage fest that is gaming has done surprisingly little to welcome those without a Y-chromosome.
It's no secret or mystery that gamer culture has managed to stay a sausage party for a very, very long time. Take one look at all the skimpy outfits and jiggle physics tacked on to female characters in favor of actually characterizing them. Listen to the voices of the majority of players wearing headsets in any given matchmaking lobby; sure, some are higher pitched, but more often than not, one can tell that's the case because they're pre-pubescent, not because they're female. Name enough higher-ups in game companies, or even non-indie game developers (or hell, include the indies if you want), to count on all, if not just one hand's worth, your fingers. Go ahead, I can wait.
Not that easy, is it? And that's just part of the problem. Sure, there are segments of of the gamer population who are full aware of the problem, even on the male side from whence the problem spawns, and they've made fun of it as best they can, but there's a majority of gamers and gaming fans out there who don't think women belong in gaming in any respect, considering it a joke, an affront, or an outright deception on womankind's part should they pick up a controller or *gasp* go so far as to make a game themselves.
Some of this, at least back in the day, could be attributed to the fact that a great deal of the people creating video games came from realms that were already testosterone driven. The budding field of computer science was, as most sciences were back then, a no-girls-allowed clubhouse, and when Japan got their fingers into the gaming pie, it makes sense that their patriarchal society would only contribute to the male dominance of the industry. Game thematics followed suit, with concepts like war and combat being easier to portray within the limits of early gaming technology than more complex themes, and, once things evolved to the 8-bit era, the archetypical tale of the guy saving the day and getting the girl put ladies in roles of distress rather than participation, more often than not. Sure, there were exceptions, like Samus Aran of Metroid fame, and other leading ladies like the titular Athena and Alis of Phantasy Star, but for the most part, dudes were the ones killing (and being) badguys, getting things done, and saving the day.
Decades down the road, and how far have we come on that front? Not very. Super Princess Peach, a Nintendo DS title from 2005, takes everyone's favorite serial kidnap victim and sets her off to save Mario for once, with powers based on mood swings. Ladies have gained more and more ground in the realm of fighting games, but only in exchange for less and less clothing to wear to those fights. Lara Croft, renown just as much for her badassery as her enormous, polygonal bust, is now looking forward to attempted sexual assault to make her an empathetic character in an upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. And the aforementioned Samus, once considered a paragon of self-sufficiency, got some ridiculous heels tacked on to her Zero Suit and even more ridiculous overemotionality tacked onto her mental state in 2010's Metroid: Other M. Strong, respectable, and even reasonably accurate representations of women are few and far between in games, and it seems to be a product of both the men who are trying to write them and the boys who don't want them in their games beyond sex appeal in the first place.
Yes, boys. Not men. Children. Manchildren, in many cases, but still children have just as much of the blame for the state of descrimination against women in gaming today as the industry side of things. Harassment, both textual, verbal, and beyond are hallmarks of both online play and online commentary anymore. Websites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty serve as documentation of the wide range of harassment female gamers undergo on services like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, as well as in chat in popular MMOs such as World of Warcraft. If a girl shows up in a lobby and it's clear she is actually female, the immediate response of most is to fall back on the tiresome "get back to the kitchen" line, assume they're hideous, or proposition them for (and/or threaten them with) sexual favors (and/or assault). Those instances, at least, seem to imply a belief in the legitimacy of girls' ability to play games from time to time, which could be considered slightly better than the conspiracy theories surrounding "fake" nerd girls and the looming threat they pose to the "real" gamers' status quo.
Just recently, 343 Industries threatened (and later rescinded said threat) to lay down the banhammer on anyone reported for sexist, derogatory comments towards those of the female persuasion in Halo 4 multiplayer matches, which was met with a maelstrom of male gamers crying foul on the grounds of everything from First Amendment rights to nothing being done about "sexism against men" (AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA wut), or the rampant racism and homophobia on the service as well. While the latter issues are ones that could use some addressing as well, a lot of the commentary on sexual preference and race of some players, while hateful, stems more from terms like "gay," "fag," and racial slurs having infiltrated common parlance as less targeted negative terminology; the kids calling you the n-word don't know your race or care if you're actually of a certain ethnicity, they're just out to insult you. Hatred against women, on the other hand, is specifically targeted towards female players based on their gender once said gender is known, and is less likely a product of upbringing as it is the ambient gamer culture itself, hence the priority. What makes it more of a shame that this is an issue in Halo is that Bungie and, subsequently, 343 Industries, have been making a point in their past few games to include female options for in-game character models (as far back as Dare being unlockable in ODST), an attempt at inclusiveness that's being shot down by the player base themselves. Who's going to play as a lady SPARTAN when that's an even easier way to open one up to verbal abuse?
These disgusting assumptions carry over into the realm of video and written content about games, should the creators and presenters make the twin "mistakes" of being attractive and female. Sure, there have been some incidents of female hosts being chosen more for their looks than for any video game knowledge, and there's the occasional, documented case of girls taking suggestive pics with game tie-ins to appeal to a nerdier demographic, but more and more, especially in the world of digital media and online video, the women discussing video games have a fair, if not impressively extensive, familiarity with their topic of choice. Apparently, that doesn't matter if you're pretty, judging by the caliber of commentary on YouTube segments. Here, have some samples.
Regarding Lisa Foiles, occasional video game writer and host of The Game Station's "Remag":
BOOBS - nadir moh
Thats the hottest red head I've seen. No lie. - Branden Barnalaby
dont get excited she stuffed her bra - Blood0cean
please tell us u didnt open ur worm hole for that d-bag - silver1fox21 (the video in question featured an interview with rapper B.O.B.)
He totally fucked her after the show. - Maxim Nawangwe
Here are some GameTrailers user comments from episodes of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?, discussing co-creator, co-star, and screen and voice actress, Ashly Burch:
So much for getting over my "Tie up Ashley Burch" fantasy <3 <3 <3 - Hoodin (doubly funny because it was Ash who was tied to a chair, not Blavis)
i bet ash gives a great BJ - MajorLeeStoned
ash is really hot especially with that ponytail on the side - Dozenbeer
Destructoid and Mash Tactics alum Pico Mause recently wrapped up a stint doing videos for Curse Network, where she and her successor, Lindsay Geektron, both get their share of *ahem* attention:
i want to fuck lindsey - gregwolz
Pico needs to be boned. - Peakiness
Lindsay has bigger boobs and automatically wins. - sevx1
soo when can i bang you - Adam Nelson
A girl with big tits moderates something about gaming. That kind of clishee is bullshit. - Nymly1 (I think he meant "cliche.")
And hell, let's look at some comments about Tara Long, from The Destructoid Show, while we're at it.
I want your fat fingers inside of me. <3 - TheLostGamingorg
Tara ur tits r awesome. can i buy u a fish sandwich? - Adam Laney
Uh...why is there an Xbox in the kitchen? - scathoob (Granted, they were discussing 343i's proposition to ban sexist players in Halo 4, but still.)
It doesn't end there, either. Barb, Kara, and the other women at Rooster Teeth get their fair share of objectifying commentary when they appear in videos, despite the nurturing and supportive nature of the bulk of RT's fanbase. Other Youtube personalities, such as Nixie Pixel, Dtoid community member Jess Brohard... the list goes on and on of video presenters who just happen to have breasts that are being judged on their looks rather than their content. And that's just currently; it's not as if this is something new.
If you want to see something spectacular, tune into one of the broadcasts the ladies of Kat Gunn's LT3 crew (which includes everyone's favorite Juliet Starling, Jessica Nigri) does on Twitch.tv, or one of their semi-regular appearances on Mash Tactics, and wait for the bans to start. Our own channel's moderators have probably set records for deleted comment counts given how many people get blasted out of stream chat just for spamming commentary about breasts and sexual propositions, rather than paying attention to what they have to say or play. Sure, they're an attractive bunch, and well aware of it, but Miss Gunn and her friends have stated time and time again that they're around to play games and prove that pretty girls can actually kick some ass on a professional level, and aren't there just to look pretty. Gunn herself has quite a portfolio in the gaming world, having won the WCG Ultimate Gamer 2 competition, made an impression on the pro gaming scene, and is a competitive RC builder and racer as well, nevermind how bad she's spanked some of Dtoid's own ringers, such as Philanthr0py, in Dead Or Alive 5. LT3 member Kelly Kelley schooled several of us in a similar fashion in Halo 4 and Call Of Duty: Black Ops 2 in recent weeks, and she currently does competition commentary on the regular for Gamespot. Jessica Nigri, aside from being an amazing cosplayer, both on the conceptual and craftsmanship fronts, has regularly shown off just how much of a huge dork she is, with webcam shots from her room showing a plethora of anime- and game-related paraphernalia (which includes a surprising number of busty, nigh-hentai statuettes filling the shelves).
These ladies have, clearly, legitimized their claims to game, and so have my earlier examples. Tara, while often quieter than her cohorts during her time on Podtoid, definitely kept up with gaming talk when it snuck in between Jim's declarations of love for Holmes and the rampant sexual deviance, and has played games quite capably on the regular on various Revolution 3 shows. Pico Mause has done her fair share of time playing through Mash Tactics' four-hour, weekdaily episodes, spent a fair amount of time in several MMOs and Minecraft in her Curse days, and will soon be providing video content for Wargaming.net (the World of (war :p)Tanks/World of Warplanes crew). As if Ash's love for and knowledge of gaming in her performances alongside her brother weren't clear enough, she also streams gaming regularly at Hey Ash's Twitch.tv channel, along with the rest of the Hey Ash crew and other friends, like Dtoid vet Brad "Pecs" Nicholson. What I'm trying to say is, while there may be Pooksies, Kristin Holts, and other poseurs putting themselves out there as "gamer girls" to get your attention, your viewership, and your clicks, there are just as many, if not more, women out there who have game, know what they're doing with a joystick, and can prove it. And, chances are, they're about as likely to lose to you easily as they are to respond to your advances over chat, message, or comment.
Thirdly, there's the industry side of things. While the whole #1ReasonWhy hashtag may have been an eye-opener for many, the women commenting on it and sharing their stories have been around and working in games for quite some time. Just off the top of my head, let me rattle off some names. Jade Raymond, managing director of Ubisoft Montreal. Brenda Romero (nee Brathwaite), game designer on several series and co-founder of Loot Drop. Karen Traviss, lead writer on Gears of War 3 and author of several Gears novels. 343 Industries' Bonnie Ross, Kiki Wolfkill, and Corrinne Yu, the general manager, executive producer on Halo 4, and principal Halo 4 engine programmer, respectively. I don't even pay that much attention to the mainstream gaming scene, and I can still name plenty of women who've worked on some of the biggest, most popular titles out there. Go to the indies however, and I don't even have time to list credentials without running out of breath.
Zoe Quinn. Christine Love. Anna Anthropy. Sophie Houlden. Erin Robinson. Jennifer Rodgers. I could go rooting through my Twitter follow list to pad this out, but the article's already gotten pretty beastly as-is. The more open, welcoming spirit of the indie gaming community can, in many ways, provide a more hospitable environment for women to work in and on games, but at the same time, that independence can lead to even more strife than the ladies who've "made it" and are with larger, established companies. Between finding and dealing with publishers, trying to build hype at events and conventions, and generally dealing with an establishment that, while improving, is mostly still favorable to the big name, triple-A side of gaming, female devs are, in some ways, dealing with a deck that's even more stacked against them, at least in terms of seeking "success" in commercial and exposure terms. But they're there, and they're creating some of the most interesting, entertaining games you've never heard of, despite all the annualized, reiterative cash cows and easily digestable, wide-appeal titles that are churned out and overshadow them. For instance, check out Super Street Fire, SWIFT*STITCH, or Puzzle Bots, and then try to say that women shouldn't be making games.
To be fair, I'm not convinced every male gamer out there is a disgusting, femme-bashing pig. During those aforementioned LT3 sessions on Mash Tactics, those amongst the several thousand viewers in-house who were being respectable human beings and asking serious, sometimes even thought-provoking questions in chat, outweighed the scumbags getting booted several hundred to one. I actually had to put some effort into finding sexist comments for my YouTube sampling, which came as a quite a surprise given their rarity amongst genuine praise, or at least more socially acceptable admiration of the ladies in question (though, truth be told, both sides of that coin were dwarfed by the general stupidity of YouTube commentary as a whole). Plenty of men tuned into the gaming scene are helping spread the #OneReason____ word on Twitter just as much as women are, and getting anecdotal, I've had plenty of gaming sessions where a girl was asked to stay around for a few rounds on account of her ability to wreck face, rather than having a pretty one.
Those exceptions aside, the attitude toward women on all levels of gamer culture, be it in regards to characters or the real women playing, talking about, and making games to play needs more serious reassessment and a dramatic overhaul. The resentment, backlash, and general negativity and dismissal displayed toward the ladies of gaming has no good reason to have persisted this long, never mind as vehement as it's grown to become nowadays. It just doesn't make sense. Women haven't ruined the beer, movies, or TV that are all traditional mainstays of the male entertainment diet, so what damage could some more progressive attitudes do to gaming?
This almost qualifies as NVGR, but given Red Vs Blue's basis on Halo, I figure it counts. Kinda personal, tl;dr ahead, so if you're not into that, you can find the Back button easily enough.
Of all the things that have ever ended up tear-jerking experiences for me, Red vs Blue was the least expected inspiration for crying I've ever experienced. Sure, it's light-hearted joking and fun from the start, but by the end of the early Blood Gulch Chronicles season, darker themes are already beginning to creep in, and with the recent wrap of season 10, business got serious, and surprisingly deep.
Probably going to spoil a bit for those who haven't watched it all; head over to Rooster Teeth's site if you want to get caught up.
While it was something of a mind-blow just finding out Church was an AI, thus explaining his ghostiness (and, subsequently, revealing his on-again, off-again, sort-of-girlfriend Tex was also an artificial intelligence), and I was bawling at the end of season 10, with the meaningful look in the Director's eyes as he realized his obsession with his dead ex-wife, the memory of which spawned Tex in the first place, had ruined his relationship with his daughter, it was RvB's ninth season that really struck close to home. The entire season, shot using Halo: Reach, focused on a recreated version of Church from his original AI's splintered memories recreating his time in Blood Gulch in the banks of a failing storage unit. His aim was to draw Tex back to his side by replicating the sequence of events that led to their original Gulch encounter, in order to get to the bottom of why she existed and why they were inexplicably drawn to one another, or at least, why he was drawn to her.
While he's waiting for things to come together, and for his own private version of Blood Gulch to work properly in the first place, Church's teammate Tucker makes it a point to rag on him about how creepy and stalk-y his Tex obsession actually is. Considering this version of Tucker was created from Church's memories, it can be extrapolated that in some ways, their discussions are a sort of internal monologue, with some of Church's better reasoning starting to slip through his long-running obsession. It seems to register, as the last minutes of the memory unit's existence feature Church pulling Tex aside, not to say goodbye, but to say he's forgetting her, letting her go. Granted, the collapse of his world turns out to be a rescue mission executed by Church's associates in the real world, and the parallel obsession over Tex on the part of Carolina, the freelancer that helped the Blood Gulch crew get him out in the first place, makes that letting go that much more difficult, dragging his turmoil (albeit with a new perspective) over another season, but that's not his fault. And it's not what I'm here to ramble about.
It was kind of a fluke of timing, but I'd been catching up on Red Vs Blue while going through old storage bins, getting rid of things I no longer need and scrounging up a few items that might be ebay-worthy, when I stumbled upon something I'd forgotten. A disgruntled-looking, plush eggplant peered up at me from the floor, almost as if judging me, just after I'd clicked "Play" on season nine's twentieth episode. The one with the Church/Tex moment I just mentioned. It struck me as to just why Church's plight was resonating so much with me, which only served to make said finale even more intense.
I spent seven years of my life, on and off, bullheadedly trying to make a half-baked failure of a near-relationship work. We never actually hooked up, just kind of orbited one another as I repeatedly screwed up chances as they came up, yet not badly enough for her to excise me from her life or for me to cut her out of mine. For example of how confusing the whole mess got, things reached a point where I'd stopped hanging out at the residence house where she, along with several of my other friends I'd known before she and I'd crossed paths, at her request and/or threat. Comparable amounts of rage were subsequently to be had from her when of my buddies decided to smuggle me in while she was visiting home, only for her to find out after I'd left, and a separate incident wherein I walked ten miles or so home from my GameStop job after I couldn't raise anyone on the phone for a ride home, rather than stopping by said residence house to ask someone there. We must've made friendly at least a half dozen other times, only for me to make an ass of myself again every time, be it for honestly trying to warn her against one friend's dubious history, or my tendency to drift toward familiar faces in unfamiliar situations coupled with an alcohol-induced haze being misinterpreted as creepier behavior than I'd had in mind.
The runaround finally ended four or five years ago, not long after I purchased a little eggplant plush, both out of my love for eggplants and purple, and to try and kick her a few bucks in what wasn't proving the easiest time for her. One of those misinterpreted, drink-addled incidents led to sharp words and a declaration that she'd never cared much about me at all, in a positive or negative light, but the situation wasn't about to be buried. We had, and still have, so many friends in common that completely avoiding one another was pretty much impossible. Thankfully, she'd at least moved a couple of states away by then, so the most I saw of her was the occasional online comment on someone else's profile, or across the hall at a convention, but there was always that little twinge as I forced myself to just walk by. If I'd been so much nothing to her, why not shut things down that much sooner? Why the years of back and forth? The lack of any real closure, just the fuck-off-and-goodbye that marked the final curtain on our little drama, left a conundrum in the back of my head despite how many of the memories associated with her I'd already repressed.
So there we were. The eggplant and I. My past staring up at me, its ":|" face seemingly condescending and judgmental in the glow of my laptop's monitor, as the third iteration of Leonard Church was finding the resolution he'd sought for so long in a way he'd least expected. Not unlike Church, I'd spent seven years trying to get things right. Trying to solve my own little Tex problem. But sometimes, you don't get closure. Sometimes, the only way to find peace is to forget.
It wasn't until the middle of last year that I realized I'd fallen out of touch with a girl who was arguably my first love, with whom I shared a peculiar, long-distance thing in high school, and that I had no desire to try and get ahold of her again. Just a couple months ago, I noticed I was the only one of my friends still mentioning the anniversary of someone I'd gotten rather close to being suddenly torn away from me and the rest of us, including her boyfriend at the time, and realized it was time to put that to rest.
And now, it's about time I forgot. She hasn't kept me from other pursuits or interfered with living my life, but she's always been there. A ghost of what could've been. A torch that, while dim, never quite sputtered out. A reminder of lessons I should've learned before I met her, and in much less hard a way. Kind of like a bruise that hadn't quite healed right, but was more an occasional annoyance, and a peculiar shade of purple. Not unlike an eggplant. Besides, there's another musing on Church's part that's got me a bit more preoccupied now, so there's no room or reason for her to hang around anymore.
As he's explaining his reasons behind recreating Blood Gulch in the now-sealed memory unit at the end of season 8, Church mentions that he's learned, "a great love is a lot like a good memory. When it's there, and you know it's there, and it's just out of your reach, it can be all that you think about. You can focus on it, and try to force it, but the more you do, the more you seem to push it away. But if you're patient, and you hold still, then maybe, just maybe, it'll come to you." I'm not one for holding still, normally, but I'm starting to think I've reason to give it a try.
After just over ten years of publishing, gamer-centric webcomic Ctrl-Alt-Del would appear to be calling it quits. Having somehow survived the post-Penny-Arcade boom that spawned a slew of similar, "gamer buddy" strips in the late '90s and early '00s, Tim Buckley has decided to go out with an inappropriately dramatic bang.
Personally, I jumped what I already recognized as a sinking ship as soon as the strip Loss, which dealt clumsily and asynchronously with the subject of miscarried pregnancy, hit the web back in 2008, but thanks to friends who refused to give up, I've heard dribs and drabs of what's been going on since then. It would seem bizarre tonal shifts weren't enough for cartoonist Tim Buckley, as racism, plagiarism, and a complete lack of stylistic evolution all had their time to shine over the course of the strip's final four years.
For the morbidly curious, the strip's final arc was an unsurprisingly dark and incongruous turn from CAD's normal, lighthearted fare; a sort of final "fuck you" that would've been better suited as part of a separate project. A quick glance through the archive revealed something about time travel, dystopia, and everything bad being main character Ethan's fault, but I couldn't bear to continue and figure out what was going on in any great detail. If you're feeling masochistic, help yourself.
And so we stand at what could be considered the end of an era, I guess. It's weird to see Ctrl-Alt-Del finally bite it, especially when it feels like it should've wrapped up years beore now, but I wouldn't say it's sad. For those who may have actually enjoyed the comic, fear not, as some wiseass managed to sneak this into their Wikipedia entry and it was still there as of this morning:
To be fair, the final arc isn't all terrible, as it did lead to this:
(Yeah, another Halo 4 blog. At least this one isn't nearly as spoilery as my prior one, so enjoy without worry.)
It goes without saying that I'm kind of a Halo fanboy. With several blogs on the series over the years, one in just the past week, and release-day, limited edition purchases for every game but Halo 3: ODST (since it was just a controller pack-in) since the second, one could say I likes me some Covie-smashing. Being as immersed as I have been in the franchise for this long, Halo 4 is something of a dream come true, with content pulling from some of the extended universe and basing itself directly on obscura from earlier games themselves. At the same time, the more objective gamer in me is finding the latest Halo a bit ridden with mixed messages, given some of the things 343 Industries seems to be doing to bring in new playership and go head to head with BlOps 2, and I can't help but say something about it.
One of the foremost aspects of Halo 4 that bothers me is the campaign mode's incomplete-feeling story. Despite gushing over the treatment of the Master Chief/Cortana relationship recently, the storytelling outside of that feels kind of muddled and confused. There's always been a bit a clumsiness in the storytelling in previous Halo titles, or at least, a lot of material relying on external information for clarification, but H4 seems to have gone the extra mile by pulling two of the core players in its plot from the Terminal easter eggs in Halo 3. The back and forth between the Forerunners known as the Diadact and the Librarian, which led to both their appearances in the latest game, was covered in a series of text logs which were discoverable by players in the third Halo, but were completely optional and often far enough off the main progression path to easily be ignored. Sure, their tale is retold, after a fashion, via a new set of Terminals that unlock animated shorts on Halo Waypoint, but again, they aren't the most obvious things out there.
Even going through the effort to find said Terminals only clears up so much, as well; the Diadact's motivation seems a little off, given that what he aims to do has little point. If he succeeds at his task, there's little to no reason to exact the vengeance he would appear to be after, as doing so would give him a massive army with nothing against which to fight given the Flood's obliteration in Halo 3. Unless, of course, those puke-green little bastards are rolling back in from wherever they originally came from in 5 or 6, in which case, damn you 343 for making us think we were done with those pricks. Here's hoping the next two games in the promised new trilogy explain things a bit better, regardless.
Another source of confusion, at least for me, is why the Covenant are back. In some ways, I can understand that 343 may have needed a familiar enemy to help bridge the gap from 3 to 4, and a presence that would keep familiar Covenant weaponry in the game for veterans who expected as much, but there's little exposition as to why the Sangheili are at odds with humanity after their cooperation with us in Halo 3, or why they're still banded together with Jackals and Grunts, aside from Cortana's note that they're "more fanatical" than the Covenant from previous encounters. The Spartan Ops mode sheds a bit more light on things, citing that these "Storm" Covenant feel the shield world Requiem houses one of their gods, and it's further explained via intel on Halo Waypoint that the Sangheili fell into factions following the fall of the Prophets, some of which rebuilt the Covenant to pursue some of its original ideals, but you have to do a bit of digging to even find that much. Besides, after being betrayed by the Prophets, between both the lies regarding the Great Journey and their ousting in favor of the Jiralhanae (Brutes), why would Sangheili be the ones to embrace the teachings that once led them astray? Again, there are still plenty of Spartan Ops episodes on their way down the pipe, and two more games forthcoming that might explain it, but it's a lot left to question, especially for those of us who are veterans of the series.
Thirdly, what's up with the SPARTAN-IVs? Sure, they mention that they're around to replace the Master Chief and the rest of the fallen SPARTAN-II program. It's been four years, and advances in technology that gave us the Mantis walker and made the massive UNSC Infinity viable may also have made the augmentation process that killed half the original SPARTAN-II batch and disfigured a few more of those that survived a bit more viable, as well as applicable to older candidates. But what of the SPARTAN-III program, which we got to experience hands-on in Halo: Reach, and was covered somewhat extensively in books and graphic novels? They may have been more of an expendable stopgap, and perhaps the viability of what would become the SPARTAN-IVs forced the phasing out of SPARTAN-IIIs, but it's not really covered, and these new SPARTANs are kind of like guests who just showed up unannounced at your party, but everyone else there already seems to know and be friends with. Which, following the analogy, is a little bit confusing and awkward. There is a SPARTAN-IV entry on Waypoint as well, but it explains little more than the fact that these new SPARTANs are pulled from existing military ranks and beefed up to use the variety of new powered armors available. No reason as to why, whether they're fighting the resurgent Covenant, a renewed, post-Halo insurrection, or why there seem to be such a sizable number of them.
A common thread uniting the above beefs is the necessity of Halo Waypoint to understand what's going on, and that bothers me as well. While I love Waypoint's wealth of information, as it's essentially a proprietary wiki, and the meta-tracking of stats Waypoint does for all your series playtime since Halo 3 gives fans such as myself even more progress to whore over, it's pretty much just assumed that players will know to go there or already have it installed on their 360s. There's even an option to open up Waypoint on Halo 4's opening menu, but nowhere is there any sort of explanation as to what, exactly, Halo Waypoint even is. With the reliance on Waypoint's database to serve as something of an instruction manual and exposition fairy, and the rather well-done introduction video that was included for new players regarding armor customization and the different game modes, it would have been a good idea to explain Waypoint's function to Halo neophytes instead of just asking them to check it out blindly.
Now, I know, being the fourth core game and seventh franchise title (eighth, if you count Combat Evolved - Anniversary as a separate game) makes Halo 4 more intended for long-running fans than it does fresh meat, especially given the tendency for each title in the series to directly follow or tie into previous games, but plenty of other, big-name series have managed to be a bit more newbie-friendly in the past. The Saints' Row games are all playable independantly, with Saints' Row The Third pulling in plenty of new players, myself included. Plot-heavy roleplaying franchises such as Mass Effect and both of .hack//'s series both allowed players to jump in with new characters at any stage of the series and managed to make a fair amount of sense even without experiencing things from the beginning, though character import from previous games definitely made the experience a bit richer. Halo 4 on the other hand, seems much more rooted in its predecessors plot-wise, and does little to bring new faces up to speed outside of some mentions of previous operations, and a completely optional computer station tucked away downstairs from near the game's starting point, which offers a slideshow covering the core events of the earlier Halos and mentions why you're floating in space in half a ship in the first place. Seems pretty scant, given how much attention has been paid to the game's own plot, and how much the multiplayer has changed to seemingly draw in some fresh attention.
I'm not lamenting the new Halo multiplayer experience, mind you. I had reservations going in, to be certain, but it grew on me quickly, and I actually love how the game's been changed in many respects. While the whole grinding to open up access to loadout options is a bit of a chore, it's nice to have the loadout option once you've gotten a fair amount unlocked, and the early level progression is fast enough that it doesn't feel too burdensome to give yourself a decent arsenal within a few play sessions. The introduction of an ordnance drop function, which mostly replaces on-map weapon placement, has changed the overall strategy from the domination of item spawns that happened often in previous iterations to more teamwork and specialization based gameplay, as well as forced versatility.
Fighting over the Sniper Rifle, Plasma Sword, or whatever else has been mitigated by the chance of getting one at more advantageous time mid-match should you miss the inital rush for whichever one drops on the map, so long as you keep racking up the kills with whatever you brought in. The wide variety of unlockable armor options is not only an indication of level now, but also ties, in many cases, to Commendation progress, which can be a tell as to what certain players are good at. For instance, I recently got a green visor for maxing out my Splatter commendation, and as much as I love it, I'm finding more and more that at least one or two people on the other team show up with plasma pistols whenever I start Ghosting around a Big Team Slayer match. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that they've got the locked teaser for the same visor on their loadout pages themselves, and know I'm a driver to worry about. And the new modes, like Regicide and Dominion, which are more twists on old classics than completely new (Juggernaut and Territories, respectively), are pretty satisfying and worth checking out for those waiting for more of the classics, like Grifball and SWAT, to see a return to matchmaking.
At the same time, the new multiplayer structure, with its perks, kill-streak ordnance drops, and whatnot, does smack quite a bit of the progression system in Call Of Duty and other, long-running, military shooters Halo 4 seems to be going up against in the battle for multiplayer market share, and one can only assume it's a move to both attract players of other games who happen to be familiar with such progress systems, and to keep new and old players alike invested for a longer period of time by giving them more rewards than just new armor sets and a pretty icon next to their name for leveling, as in prior Halo titles. But again, with the bulk of weapon knowledge being relegated to the underexplained Waypoint app, especially with the ordnance offerings, and the dense referentiality of the Spartan Ops mode and the campaign, this attempt at infusing the player base with fresh blood seems a bit at odds with the game's fanservicey nature.
It's easier to jump in blind to classic, modern-day, and just-after-modern-day military FPSes given the rough familiarity of the bulk of the weaponry; you can ask pretty much anyone who'd play such a game in the first place what an AK-47 is, never mind most anyone at all you'd ask on the street, and they'd be able to tell you. A tank is a tank. Knives are knives, sometimes you can throw them. Grenades go boom. But with Halo's wide array of weird space pew-pews, energy swords with that crazy lunge distance, alien vehicles, and a whole new pile of weapons from the Prometheans that have their own set of rules and functions... there's a bit of a wall for new entrants to overcome outside of the somewhat familiar UNSC weaponry spread. Hell, I didn't even know the Boltshot had a charged shot function, until I got light-bukkaked several times in a match and it wasn't until the third kill cam that I noticed the guy's pistol was spreading out to the sides for some reason.
A beginner's guide, or perhaps a shooting gallery mode on-disc, would do wonders for indoctrinating new players in the subtleties of Halo's rainbow of gunny-shooty goodness, and avoid potential distaste and abandoment of the game by newblets who keep getting spanked by firepower they don't even understand. Such modes have been around as far back as Perfect Dark and its actual, hub-world firing range, if not earlier, and I distinctly recall encountering a basic training level in the first Modern Warfare modeled after a military training exercise, despite the aforementioned familiarity to many of current-gen, military hardware.
None of these issues are buzzkills, by any means. I love Halo 4 as much as I've loved any of the other Halo games, I'm having a great time, and in all honesty, I can't put it down. Though one look at my profile could probably tell you that much, what with the rank of SR-45, half the campaign and both Spartan Ops episodes done on Legendary already, and around 300 games across all modes under my belt already despite the game having only been out a week thust far. 343 just overlooked a few things in its efforts to live up to Bungie's legacy in the eyes of the sometimes rabid, fairly insular and very dedicated Halo fanbase, and as someone who'd like to see the Gospel according to John-117 spread to as many as possible, they could've made it a bit easier to introduce people to this new trilogy, and secure an even wider following for the fifth game's likely move to the successor to the 360.
If I had to put a number on it, these few shortcomings would knock my rating of Halo 4 down to a 9.5, maybe even a 9.0, but that's still the makings of an amazing game, and I encourage anyone and everyone to try it out, regardless of how deeply entrenched it is in its own mythos at this point. If you have any questions as to what's going on, feel free to ask me, I guess. It's not as if I like talking about Halo or anything.
First things first, title aside, this is safe for work, and has nothing to do with any sort of anime. And, while I usually open with a relevant introduction and then slip in the spoiler warning, the subject material discussed herein covers Halo 4, which hasn't even been out a week yet, I implore you:
IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED HALO 4'S CAMPAIGN AND YOU GIVE HALF A CRAP ABOUT THE HALO FRANCHISE'S STORY, HIT THE BACK BUTTON ON YOUR BROWSER IMMEDIATELY.
Even just grazing your way down to the image gallery could technically spoil some things you're going to want to go in as virginally as possible. That being said, let us proceed.
How real does someone have to be before you fall in love with them? "Reality," in this case, referring to ephemeral presence as a cognizant, functioning being, or the nearest approximation. People have been falling in love with well-developed characters across plenty of realms over the years, and even lesser developed ones if enough sex appeal is jammed into their two-dimensional representations when it comes to visual media. Fans in Japan and worldwide fawn over virtual idol Hatsune Miku despite her being little more than a characterized representation of synthetic singing software, a haunting parallel to visionary author William Gibson's Idoru, in which an aging rocker, Rez, seeks to marry a digital pop star by the name of Rei Toei. So, when it comes down to it, it's as realistic as anything to think that love between a (super)man and an artificial intelligence is as likely as any other sort of romance in the 2550s.
When Halo first hit Xboxes back in November of 2001, Bungie managed to keep the interplay between Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 and his companion AI, Cortana, fairly low-key. The big man in the bigger armor and the pretty, little, glowy lady had clearly been acquainted before the game's starting point, and seemed fairly well-accustomed to each other's company judging by their back-and-forth, but other than that, any relationship was left to speculation (and fanfiction). The first Halo novel, The Fall Of Reach, had been rushed out the door just prior to the game, and filled in some of the blanks as to Master Chief's history, it was similarly scant on interactions between John and Cortana, aside from the budding of their bond during a rigorous training exercise where she rode along in Master Chief's powered suit, but it would be another three years before things became much clearer.
The events of Halo 2 begin hinting that there may be more than just a sort of brother-and-sister in arms sort of comeraderie between Cortana and John-117. The back-and-forth between the two continues just as it did in the first game, but there's one moment in particular that points at something bigger. Towards the game's end, Cortana outlines a plan to blow the engines of the crashed ship, In Amber Clad, in order to take out the Covenant capital city-ship, High Charity, which had been overrun by the Flood, as well as Halo ring Installation 05, should attempts to stop its firing fail. Master Chief reaches to pull her from the interface from which she's communicating, only to have Cortana refuse, stating she can't risk a remote detonation and needs to stay to be sure. This moment, while fleeting, is the first time Master Chief has actually hesitated up to this point, and even behind his helmet's faceplate, you can see his concern. Reluctantly, John-117 promises to come back for her, to which Cortana reminds him he shouldn't "make a girl a promise, if you know you can't keep it." In the end, the two end up separated, with Master Chief finding his way back to Earth to "finish the fight" against the Covenant, and Cortana stuck in the clutches of the Flood's Gravemind back on High Charity.
Upon its release in 2007, Halo 3's introductory sequence drops a bit of a bombshell when it picks up where Halo 2 left off. According to Cortana herself, her pairing with Master Cheif was no accident; she was allowed to choose which of the SPARTAN-II candidates she wanted to accompany. Clearly, they developed some sort of link, as despite the lightyears between the pair, Chief manages to catch glimpses of Cortana somehow. Clearly tortured and apparently approaching Rampancy, the state of thinking to death suffered by "smart" artificial intelligences after seven years, Cortana seems damaged and approaching a sort of digital schizophrenia despite only having been in service for three. Her obvious decay and her question, at one point, if John could sacrifice her to complete a mission, makes his actions in the game's penultimate chapter that much more drastic and poignant.
Despite being complicit mere hours earlier in the destruction of the entire city of Voi, Kenya in order to stop the spread of a Flood infection on Earth, Master Chief ignores all sense and practicality, plunging into the depths of the infested remains of High Charity after it slipspace jumps to keep his promise and rescue Cortana. Granted, it does help her case a bit that she likely still holds the Key from Installation 04 which can fire its under-construction replacement outside of the range of the rest of the Halo system and wipe out The Flood for good, but still, this is crazier than jumping from a station through a Covenant fleet with a bomb, or pulling a Felix Baumgartner minus any sort of parachute and hoping the MJOLNIR Mark VI can absorb planetary impact. Going solo against an entire Flood hive is not something you do for a mere coworker.
And, in a way, it does make quite a bit of sense. After all, John, along with the rest of the SPARTAN-II candidates, was abducted at the tender age of six, and forced to become friends as well as possible despite such an early trauma with the other seventy-four kids in the program. Half those friends would be wiped out after proving unable to survive physical augmentation, and the rest, so far as Master Chief is aware, died or ended up missing in action following the events on planet Reach that resulted in his arrival on Halo in the first place. Similarly, Cortana was the only one of two known AIs (and the only one, to her knowledge) to have been created from a flash-clone of a human neural network, a fact she reveals to John after his adamant refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of her oncoming Rampancy after four years of idle thought as they drifted through space between Halo 3 and the outset of Halo 4.
Both are the last of their kind, and despite having only known one another for a few brief years, they've become the sort of couple that completes one another about which hopeless romantics can only dream. In many ways, Cortana is arguably more human than John, despite her digital nature, with her origins and close operation with humans presumably allowing for the development of actual emotion. Meanwhile, Master Chief is almost as much a machine as the armor protecting him, with his harsh, isolated, military upbringing having suppressed much of the humanity he might have had a chance to develop under more "normal" circumstances.
As the story of Halo 4 progresses, so too does the player's view of just how much Cortana and Master Chief care for one another. Upon his awakening from cryo-sleep, Cortana is visibly delighted to have John back in the waking world once he steps out of his pod and walks over to retrieve her. Despite her increasing state of mental decay, Chief stubbornly continues his quest to get her back to humankind and possibly fix Cortana, somehow. As she becomes increasingly incapable of functioning and the window of opportunity to get Cortana home becomes narrower and narrower, John-117 takes over the role of guide that Cortana had filled to this point, keeping her focused and holding her holographic hand through tasks that were once a breeze. Cortana is the first and only thing on Master Chief's mind as she disappears, briefly, thanks to the AI shadow of the Forerunner known as the Librarian, and Cortana specifically cites her drastic course of action in splitting off her growing collection of multiple personalities into the systems of the Didact's ship in order to help stop him as something John isn't going to like.
It's not until the game's finish that we see just why he's not going to like it, however. After the terminal she's using disappears just prior to Master Chief's final confrontation with the misguided, long-imprisoned Forerunner known as the Didact, and her many selves bind said Forerunner long enough for John to plant a pulse grenade in his torso, sending him hurtling into an energy vortex below and buying enough time to nuke the ship and the Composer device it houses that would turn humanity into more of the Didact's Promethean army, Master Chief miraculously awakens, alive and un-nuked himself, in a bubble of blue hard light energy. Cortana stands before him, the size of a normal human and in as physical a form as she can be thanks to said hard light, and explains the good news and the bad news.
The good news is, they won. The Didact's ship is done, Earth is saved, and they've made it home together at last.
The bad news is, only one of them is actually going to make it home. The way things have worked out, John-117 only got one half of the "save the world, get the girl," deal, as the bulk of Cortana's programming is now scattered amongst the debris floating through space around them, and what's left can only maintain the energy bubble for so long.
For the first time in the entire Halo series, and likely, his life as a SPARTAN-II, Master Chief audibly chokes up. This can't be happening. They've been through too much. They're too good together. Under his helmet, there may very well be tears welling up, as there are in a great many of the players looking on. Cortana takes one last moment to savor her physicality and leans against John for a moment, stating she'd wanted to do exactly that for the longest time, before smiling and bidding our dumbstruck hero a final, "Welcome home, John," and fading from existence for good.
Sure, there was likely no way it could ever be physically consumated. Sure, there was pretty much a time limit set on any interaction between John and Cortana from the very beginning given that seven-year AI lifespan, regardless of it being physical or purely emotional. Sure, she was only a digital construct while he's flesh and blood, regardless of his augmentations. But somehow, a series that many accuse of being trope-ridden, or only good for its multiplayer elements, or blatantly inferior to other first-person shooters out there, especially PC titles in the genre, managed to tell a better love story innocuously than many games (or even movies) have that've clearly set out to do so.
I'll admit, it tore me up as it dawned on me where Cortana was going with her farewells, much as it was dawning upon the Chief himself, especially with Halo 4's early glimmer of hope for her. What stung even more was that I'd conjectured such a glimmer before the game's release, based on what information had been released on her in other media from the franchise. I cried a little again as I was capturing video from which to pull screenshots for this, and there was still something in my eye as I edited said shots, arguing for a good ten minutes with myself as to which images and how many of them I should use. In the end, I decided a more minimal approach, much like Bungie's and 343's handling of Cortana and John's relationship in the first place, would be the most appropriate, but I can't bring myself to delete the ones I didn't use, or their source video, as of yet.
Despite the tears, the crushing nature of such an end still bears some sweetness, in that such a treatment shows just how much respect and love 343 Industries has for the franchise it's inherited. There's no doubt this was as hard a decision to make as it was for Bungie to leave their baby in the hands of another crew, regardless of whether some of those new hands came from Bungie themselves, and it opens a mind-blowing array of possibilities for the next two games we've been promised. What will John-117 be like, post-Cortana? Will he follow a similar, dutiful path to that of Thomas Lasky, who himself lost a young love during his rescue by Master Chief from the Corbulo Academy during the early days of the Covenant invasion? Will John become more like the human Cortana helped him to be, or drift more toward the machine she teased him for resembling? In many ways, Cortana was also Master Chief's last shackle to Catherine Halsey and her SPARTAN-II program, shed along with his MJOLNIR Mark VI armor at the game's close, so it's as if our faceless hero is born entirely anew, with a whole new life to choose and live.
While I would have rather seen him live at least a bit more of it with his little, blue ladyfriend, I, for one, look forward to where John-117 may be headed, and how his time with Cortana may have flavored how he decides to get there.