Identity Crisis: Exploring Choice in Video Games

While choice-based narratives can be found sparsely placed throughout the history of games, the addition of dedicated choice systems was one of the biggest hallmarks of the last generation of video games. Games would often incorporate what were touted as “branching” and “dynamic” stories, with varying degrees of success.

This has led players to have to assume a number of increasingly realistic and sometimes troubling roles, which asks the question: Considering this melding of identities, how do players respond in the face of choice?

In my analysis, I’ll be focusing on the choices of players in the Telltale Games’ video game series, The Walking Dead. In the ocean of games which incorporate choice, The Walking Dead series stands unique among games in the opportunities it provides players to immerse themselves in its story. Despite only having pre-defined characters to play as, it stills allows people to express their decisions in the story, with the narrative outcome the only thing players need to be basing decisions on.

What is The Walking Dead?

Taking place in the same universe as the Walking Dead comic book series, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead video game is currently in its third season. The game is released episodically, with the players’ decisions carrying over across each episode. Choice plays a major part – in fact, some might say choice is all there is. There’s not really any actual gameplay in The Walking Dead, save for a few walking sections and quick-time events. The bulk of the player’s time is spent in dialogue, and making snap life-and-death decisions.

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                                Lee and Clementine from “The Walking Dead” Season 1 (Source: The Walking Dead)

In Season 1, the story follows Lee Everett, a convict who escapes from custody following The Walking Dead series’ zombie outbreak. Shortly after breaking free he encounters a young girl named Clementine whose babysitter has turned. She’s waiting for her parents to return home from their vacation when Lee finds her hiding in her treehouse. He takes the young Clementine under his wing, and he attempts to prepare her for all the horrors the outside world has for her. How the player chooses to raise Clementine is up to them; she’s always watching the example Lee sets for her, so his actions can transform the person she ultimately becomes.

In Season 2, the player controls Clementine, who takes the lessons she’s learned from Lee to become more independent. She has to survive in a new group without Lee to guide her, and now must make the hard decisions she watched Lee struggle with herself. By the end, she learns enough difficult lessons to become entirely self-sufficient, namely abandoning longtime allies who’ve lost their way.

The third season (also known as The Walking Dead: A New Frontier) is currently in production and has two leads: Clementine, who has now evolved into a formidable, independent survivor, and Javier “Javi” García. Javi runs into Clementine while searching for his family, who were captured by a hostile group of survivors. The player makes decisions as both characters, as their perspectives can swap mid-episode.

Since the narrative is essentially the only component the games offer, it means that players’ choices aren’t restricted by how their choices will impact gameplay. Some games, like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, will lock certain weapons or abilities depending on choices that players make, meaning the story isn’t always at the forefront when decisions are made. Since The Walking Dead is all story, it makes it the perfect game to examine how players express themselves narratively in gaming.

The Analysis

            For my study, I took to The Walking Dead developer Telltale Games’ active community forums and posed the question: Do people make choices based on how they’d personally make them, or do they make decisions on behalf of how they think the character would act?

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                                Clementine investigating a walker alone in The Walking Dead: Season 2 (Source: The Walking Dead Season 2)

As part of the question I offered up my own experience. I used to play games purely acting out as myself. But I eventually realized that like many people, I view myself as a good person, and therefore almost always chose the most charitable option. After a while this became boring, and some of Telltale’s games including The Walking Dead made me rethink this notion. The decisions in their games are often grey and not purely good or evil, so picking the choice which made me look the best wasn’t always an option. In Telltale’s Game of Thrones, the player swaps between several characters, each with unique, distinct personalities. Playing each of these characters the same, in my mind, defeated the purpose of having so many diverse characters, so I began to make decisions I knew were irresponsible if I believed it fit the character’s personality.

But I was curious how other people in the Telltale community played these games. My discussion proved fruitful, as I received about 4 pages of responses (the full forum thread can be found here).

The Verdict

            Respondents were pretty evenly split on whether they made choices as they would make them or if they roleplayed. Some even came up their own ways of playing beyond the two I provided in the prompt.

User “The Great Fish” discusses how the changes in characters’ circumstances affected how they acted:

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“Homerous” reports the issue he had with assuming the identity of another character with whom he had few personal connections with:

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User “AgentZ46” says that although they roleplay, Lee would sometimes act out in ways that contradicted their envisioned character. Referencing a moment in the first season where survivor Kenny smashes the head of someone who had just suffered a heart attack for fear they’d turn into a zombie post-mortem, “AgentZ46” explains the internal contradiction between what he would do in that situation and what Lee does, as well as how Lee at times defied “AgentZ46’s” established identity for him.

 

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Another user, “DabigRG,” says in Season 2 (where Clementine was on her own without Lee), they had a complicated characterization established for Clementine.

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Rather than roleplaying or putting themselves into the game, user “AnKun” simply picks the most interesting option.

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Another user who plays in an alternative way is “Melton23.” They also mention a moment in Season 3 where Javi and Clementine are both fighting a group of survivors and the player must choose if Javi fights with Clem or makes sure his family is okay. Since Javi and Clem are the main characters of the season, “Melton23” says it was a low-risk decision, as they knew the two wouldn’t die.

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“Kenny111” said that even though they try to make intentionally bad decisions, they feel guilty and will reload the game to make the decision differently.

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Why it Matters

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                              A grown-up Clementine and Javi in The Walking Dead: Season 3 (Source: The Walking Dead: A New Frontier)

At the base level, these findings show how differently players can interpret the same interactive story they’re participating in. But on a higher level, it presents the question of identity in gaming, and how players separate themselves from the choices they make within virtual worlds.

 

Adrienne Shaw argues that unlike other forms of media, the interactive component of games provides unique opportunities for player identification.

“How players think about what they are doing when they’re playing and whether or not they identify with game characters has implications for how we study video games as texts,” (Shaw, 2009).

Shaw says that player identification is a major component in discussions surrounding in-game representation, games and learning, and video game violence.

Shaw also references James Paul Gee’s “tripartite play of identities”, which consists of the player’s own identity, the identity of the avatar and the interplay between the two. This tripartite is particularly present in Telltale’s choice-based games, where that projection of self onto the player comprises most of the experience.

In Gee’s book What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he says that all learning requires the assumption of another identity.

“All learning in all semiotic domains requires taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one’s old identity to the new one,” (Gee, 45).

He continues in this chapter by describing his relationship with the character of Bead Bead in the game Arcanum. By the end, Gee felt a sense of shared pride from what he and Bead Bead accomplished collectively.

“As a player, I was proud of Bead Bead at the end of the game in a way in which I have never been proud of a character in a novel or movie, however much I had identified with him or her. I can identify with the pride characters in a novel or movie must or should feel, given what they have done or how far they have come. But my satisfaction with Bead Bead is tinged with pride (it could have been regret had things turned out differently), at various levels, in and with myself.

“This feeling is not (just) selfish. In a sense it is also selfless, since it is pride at things that have transcended – taken me outside of – my real-world self (selves), if I am playing the game reflectively,” (Gee, 54).

In Play/Write, Emily Stuemke discusses World of Warcraft and how players project their identities onto their avatars.

“The identity reflected and recognized by the group is given the power to participate and to create stories both within the game and about the player behind it. The player joins in the game world as a participant who composes his or her own story, whether that is a detailed role play characterization, as described by Saif, or a more casually fabricated process that reflects the skill set, aptitudes, and mannerisms of the player,” (Stuemke, 230).

Here, Stuemke mentions how even in games where the player-controlled character has a defined backstory and characterization, players are stilling leaving their mark and imposing their identities onto the characters in the world. Again, The Walking Dead could not continue without some kind of player input, so it’s impossible for people to completely dissociate from what’s happening on-screen.

Conclusion

So, why does this all matter? This discussion of identity in games how players form that relationship speaks to the unique storytelling advantage games have. As Gee describes, experiencing the success of a character one loves in a game is a little more personal than watching the success of a character one loves in a film. There’s that extra participatory element with video games that sparks so many academic discussions.

That interplay of identity, the “tripartite” as Gee puts it, is the reason video games are a cathartic get-away for so many people. Players can be challenged by different perspectives, live out personal fantasies, or operate in a completely different life inside of a virtual world.

So why limit yourself to reading about different perspectives when you can experience them for yourself?

 

 

 

Works Cited

Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shaw, A. (2009). Relocating Gamer Studies: Two Case Studies in Solitary Gaming. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1-30.

Stuemke, E. (2016). VoIP, Composition, and Membership. In D. Eyman & A. Davis (Eds.), Play/Write: Digital Rhetoric, Writing, Games) (pp. 218-233). South Carolina: Parlor Press LLC.

Telltale Games (2012, April 24). The Walking Dead By: S. Vanaman, J. Rodkin, D. Lenart, E. Parsons, N. Herman, S. Ainsworth [Computer software].

Telltale Games (2012, April 24). The Walking Dead: Season 2 By: D. Lenart, E. Parsons, S. Ainsworth, G. Ross, J. Latino [Computer software].

Telltale Games (2012, April 24). The Walking Dead: A New Frontier By: J. Latino [Computer software].

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Digital Literacy Autobiography

As a journalism student whose writing ability is something that I have to look at and evaluate every day, I’ve often reflected on what influences have molded me into the writer I am now. The things I loved as a child like comic books, video games and cartoons are largely responsible for my level of digital literacy, and it goes to show how many advanced rhetorical and linguistic lessons can be derived from these texts which are often scoffed at.

As cited in the Williams text, I, and many others, construct their own identities with elements from pop culture. “Part of the allure of mass popular culture has always been the identification of audience members with celebrity as people performed identities through public appropriation of celebrity images (Williams, 2008).” It’s something I’ve certainly done, and I credit my appropriation of popular cultures for the creation of the person I am today.

Cartoons and Spider-Man

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Screen grab from the highly influential “Spider-Man” (2000).

I’ve been told (mostly by my mother) that at a young age I had a pretty good vocabulary. That was mostly thanks to Nickelodeon cartoon shows that I would watch obsessively every afternoon. I remember hearing advanced words like “photosynthesis” “auspicious” for the first time on shows like “Fairly Odd Parents” or “Spongebob.” I started to figure out the meanings based on the context of the joke, and while I wasn’t always spot-on with what they meant, I was paying attention to words I didn’t know, which put me ahead of my peers linguistically.

My mom also gave me “homework” during a few summers, where she would give me words to find in the dictionary and I would have to write down their entries word-for-word. I hated her at the time, and in retrospective it was kind of a cruel chore for a kid on summer vacation, but looking at where I’m at now and the career I’ve chosen, I have to concede it wasn’t a terrible idea…

Another formative moment in my childhood was discovering my love for video games. I played all types of games growing up, but when I was five years-old, I was introduced to the most important game of my life: “Spider-Man” (2000). I would play it over and over and over until I memorized the entire script. When you’re a kid, you sometimes just become obsessed with things for irrational reasons, and “Spider-Man” was the thing that was always on my family television. With that game, I discovered my love for both video games and comics, two mediums that were fundamental in shaping who I am.

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One of the Marvel Masterworks trades that sits on my book shelf at home, pages worn from heavy use.

Once I entered fourth grade, I started to actually read the source material of the comic book characters that I loved so much. I would go to Barnes & Noble with my parents and buy 10-issue trade paperback issues of Amazing Spider-Man, which I read constantly. I specifically remember being regularly taken to the community pool by my mom, and instead of swimming I would read Spider-Man until it was time to leave. Even in those antiqued back-issues from the 1960s, Peter Parker’s attitude and sense of responsibility was something that I looked up to and tried to emulate. When faced with these super-powered villains ready to kill him, he doesn’t complain or feel sorry for himself; he makes jokes at them, mostly to cover up his fear. There’s just something undeniably cool about that, and to this day I try to maintain that attitude of making light of tough situations and rolling with the punches.

And while that’s more of a moral development, linguistically, I started becoming more in-tune with characterization and thinking about fictional characters as real people who dictate the story, instead of looking at whatever happens in fiction as a pure fabrication of the creator’s mind. I began to learn about the creative process, and how for many authors, the characters they imagine dictate the story inside their imaginations. It opened up a new way for me to think about writing, and I started looking up to fictional characters in the same way my father’s generation looked up to sports figures. Again, as Williams (2008) points out, I was beginning to construct my identity around the pop culture media I was consuming.

High School and Texting

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Candid photo of me texting in high school.

I continued to be more of a reader than a writer up until my junior year of high school. I’d often have thoughts or opinions about the comics I read or the games I played that I wanted to express, but I never thought to articulate them in a blog or some other medium. However, I was still writing significantly in that I was always texting. It was mostly to my high school girlfriend, which like most immature high school relationships, was the biggest thing in the world to me at the time. Consequently, I wanted to make sure the syntax of every text I sent perfectly conveyed my meaning, for fear of being misunderstood and getting into an argument.

Although it’s easy to scoff at texting as a form of writing, texting ranked number one in the kinds of writing that college students respect and do the most (Grabill 2010). And given that students write for personal enjoyment as well as for school (Grabill 2010), I believe that the satisfaction a writer gets after expressing themselves on the page is not dissimilar from the emotion a casual writer feels expressing themselves through text. Managing syntax and word choice are important skills for writing effectively, which is a problem avid texters overcome every day whether they realize it or not.

To elaborate, look at the bottom two conversations. Both illustrate completely different tones that any person from my generation will be able to pick up:

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There are a few elements in play in this conversation. The extra punctuation, as well as the “non-threatening ‘lol'” make the exchange more casual and playful. Looking at this objectively, one gets the impression that these two are friends who are comfortable doing favors for each other. Now, see what happens when the subtleties are removed and the two write everything plainly:

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Whereas this might be a normal texting conversation between two adults, someone on the receiving end of either of these messages would be wary that the other person was angry or impatient with them. The person providing the ride is giving no emotion, which suggests they’re irritated, and the person asking for it seems like they’re in a bad mood. And while this might seem silly, it’s the mutual understanding people my age have about texting etiquette.

Because of my texting experience, years after high school, I realized that I’d developed a sensitivity for the way my writing sounded,. Depending on where I placed commas or the connotation of the words I used, the tone and pacing of what I wrote could change completely. So when adults criticize today’s youth for simply texting all the time, I’d argue that they’re using the same skills as traditional writing although just expressed differently.

College and Beyond

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Duquesne University bench.

It wasn’t until my junior year of high school where I was able to identify writing as something I excelled at and enjoyed. I also still had my passion for video games, comic books and movies, so I decided I wanted to combine the two for my future career. I knew that if I pursued a career in video game journalism, I could consume the entertainment that I love, get to write about it, and hopefully inspire other people to feel the same excitement for these mediums that I felt as a kid.

I enrolled in Duquesne’s Multiplatform Journalism program to get on the right track. My JMA classes taught me the subtleties of interviewing, researching and writing for news, which I would never have learned on my own. They also made me proficient in the art of video production, namely editing, photography and visual storytelling. Thanks to my education, I’ve put together multiple multimedia projects which incorporate visual and written elements. Both mediums complement one another, and many of the constraints of one storytelling medium are covered by the other.

Apart from my school work which is primarily traditional news, I started a blog when I was a junior dedicated to video game coverage. It was hosted on Gamespot.com, and it was a great feeling putting my work out there for other people to see. Since I was getting feedback from strangers who had no reason to be nice, it meant that much more to hear someone say, “Hey I really enjoyed this, keep it up!” on the typically unforgiving Internet community. I also learned what didn’t work, and was able to identify the weaknesses I never realized I had as a writer.

Eventually, someone who had seen my blog reached out to me and asked me to write for his budding video game news site. I accepted, and since then I’ve been drifting around from site to site until I can get enough clips to turn my video games writing into a full-time job.

So if there was one major takeaway from my history of digital literacy, it would be how the stories I experienced through video games or comic books shaped me and my career years after I encountered them. Without them I wouldn’t be the person that I am, and I certainly wouldn’t have the passion for writing like I do. On a certain level, I think everyone is molded into who they are by the stories they grew up with. Without those texts, we don’t discover what we love.

As Williams says, “If we are to understand how students’ literacy practices grow and change in a culture of media convergence, then we must pay attention to how they are shaped by the discourses and rhetorics of popular culture. We need not only to attend to how students employ online technologies to read and write with popular culture but also to consider what rhetorical patterns and genre expectations influence how they read and write texts (Williams, 2008).”

Works Cited:

Grabill, J., & Pigg, S. (2010). The writing lives of college students. A WIDE Survey and Whitepaper, 20(1), 0.

Williams, B. (2008). “What South Park Character Are You?”: Popular Culture, Literacy, and Online Performances of Identity. Computers and Composition,25(1), 24-39. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2007.09.005

Link to Rough Draft: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1u6adZraTv-G4RRJx1y4GP5_r4j-Dymm3y7R3XiJviIc/edit?usp=sharing

“The Elder Scrolls Online” (Xbox One) Review

(originally published 7/22/15)

The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited attempts to combine the accessible action-RPG elements of the Elder Scrolls series with traditional MMO mechanics, many of which may be new to the series’ console fanbase. The result is an experience that can be grindy and repetitive, but is a worthy time sink for Elder Scrolls fans.

Taking place 1000 years before the events of Skyrim, there are two overarching stories in ESO. The first involves your individual quest to recover your soul from Molag Bal, whom you’ve been sacrificed to. You soon become wrapped up in a quest to foil his plans to meld the realms of the human world of Tamriel and his Coldharbour, while recruiting allies to aid you along the way. This storyline has plenty of potential on paper, but is incredibly uninteresting. Most of these missions take place in the dreary, unappealing world of Coldharbour, and the expository dialogue does a poor job of explaining what the hell is actually going on.

However, the second questline is much more interesting. Three alliances across Tamriel (the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact and the Aldmeri Dominion) have united the various provinces and their races to fight for the central land of Cyrodiil. Whichever race you pick at the beginning of the game (barring an expansion pack allow unrestricted alliance/race mixing) determines which faction you’ll be fighting for. This also dictates which side of Tamriel you’ll be starting on, the characters you’ll bring for your fight against Molag Bal, and most importantly, who you’ll be representing in the game’s PvP.

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The single-player questing boils down to completing a set of quests in every single area of every single zone of your alliance. There are some side quests and delves to tackle along the way, but they’re pretty ancillary to someone who isn’t a completionist. This grind is where the ESO experience begins to appeal more to a player’s obsessive-compulsive desire to complete things rather than their excitement for going on new and exciting missions.

While the amount of lore and detail in the fully-voiced quests is admirable, they lack the intrigue that stops players from skipping through conversations as fast as they can. It’s possible to become emotionally invested in quests that you pay attention to, but in an MMO that’s meant to be played communally with friends, it’s difficult to maintain that level of focus.

Despite the quests themselves being lackluster, the sheer size of the explorable world is enough to tolerate the grindy missions as an excuse to delve deeper into the humongous playspace. Almost every province of Elder Scrolls lore is represented and playable to some degree. To fans who have dreamt of journeying around Tamriel with their friends for years, there is a huge amount of real estate available for the game’s initial release.

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The combat in ESO is an attempt at mixing Elder Scrolls action with the stat-based combat and ability bars of a traditional MMO. And the result is… an uncomfortable mix.

It’s not bad, but with only two readily available ability bars to utilize, combat can become extremely mundane past level 25. Few enemies need to be tackled with unique strategies, so you’ll find yourself using the same combination of hacking and spell casting for every daedra you face.

Some of this monotony can be levied by playing with friends. And while this makes combat a little more interesting, ESO does a poor job of making players who’re questing together feel part of a team. It seems more like you and your friends are doing the same quest alongside each other, rather than tackling it together as a group.

This problem is negated somewhat by the group dungeons which realistically require a team of four to complete, but the non-veteran dungeons still don’t do much to challenge teams who communicate on a minimal level.

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The character building in ESO is freeform and unrestrictive for an MMORPG. Players can spec from four initial classes each resembling the standard tank, DPS, rouge and healer MMO archetypes. However, it’s possible to create any type of character build with each of these four classes.

Along with class abilities, every class can use every weapon and armor type. This allows for an insane amount of character freedom via the various skill trees. It’s possible to create any type of build you can imagine, from a simple Breton super-healer to an Orc healer-firemage with a bow.

The crafting is another element that ESO brings from its previous single-player games. Alchemy, enchanting, provisioning, etc. are back and are fun professions to pursue as you gather materials from your journey. Being able to make a good meal or craft a quality suit of armor can give you and your guild a good edge on your competition, and the pursuit of ingredients or other materials adds another layer of texture to exploration.

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While a vast amount of effort is put into PvE questing, in most MMOs, it’s more of a means to an end, which is the PvP. ESO is no different, and its versus mode offers one of the most one-of-a-kind gameplay experiences I’ve had in years.

In the context of the story, Cyrodiil is landlocked between each of the three alliances. This middle ground is heavily coveted, and players are sent to conquer the various castles and fortifications in the name of their alliance. Along the way, you’ll lay siege to enemy strongholds, fight hordes of player-controlled enemies in open combat, and capture elder scrolls to give your army stat bonuses.

The campaigns in Cyrodiil are unforgiving. Wit and good strategy will get you decently far, but nothing beats sheer numbers. There are no mechanics that benefit struggling alliances in campaigns where they’re losing ground. The dominant armies stay dominant, and while this can be frustrating to overcome without dozens of other players ready to raid, it makes actually taking enemy forts feel that much more gratifying when you fight for them tooth and nail.

Representing and fighting for a faction also gives you a sense of pride. While the initial choice of which faction you’ll fight for seems trivial, after spending hours conquering forts for your alliance and fighting against enemy forces, it makes you feel a part of something. Great games are able to draw out real emotions for something fictional, which is what ESO emphatically accomplishes.

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If nothing else, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is a great time-sink. After well over 100 hours, I’ve finally finished the main quest and am still ready for more. The shallow combat can make PvE questing a monotonous chore, but it all pays off when you’re laying siege across Cyrodiil in the name of your alliance.

 

“Halo 3: ODST” Review

(originally published 6/6/15)

Almost 6 years after its initial release, Halo 3: ODST was re-released as free apology DLC to Master Chief Collection owners who purchased the buggy, dysfunctional, 65+ GB hard drive memory void. Naturally, given 343 Industries‘ track record of fan service, the re-release did not include ODST‘s popular Firefight mode. So fans must settle with reveling in ODST‘s thrilling campaign, or returning to the all-but-extinct MCC multiplayer community. Or just play a different game altogether. But I digress.

I saw this as an opportunity to revisit a game which I had strongly disliked, but seemed to be critically well-received. Back in 2009, I thought of ODST as a money-grab, and a failure as a Halo game and an independent video game in its own right. But having an excuse to replay it now, I wanted to see if my perception of it had changed with time.

In short: No, it didn’t.

While there are definitely worse games out there, there are a few key things which cause this ambitious departure from traditional series conventions to fall flat on its face.

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ODST‘s biggest issue is its story. At every turn, the game fails to make you care about what’s happening, which makes the already forgettable action and gunfights even less engaging.

At its core, the story of ODST is a tale of an elite squadron of soldiers who are separated, and must reunite and escape New Mombasa before the Covenant gets to them. Now on paper, this could easily make for an interesting story. But as was evident in 2010’s Halo: Reach, Bungie has a difficult time with the squad dynamic in stories. While Noble Six’s squadmates were at least definable soldier archetypes, there is nothing noticeably special or unique about any of the characters in ODST.

Personally, I could not find one unique personality trait among any of the ODSTs. Least of which The Rookie, who in-between revealing flashbacks is who the player controls looking for clues through the streets of New Mombasa. The “silent protagonist” can work in some stories to help the viewer put themselves in the shoes of the main character. But within the context of a tightly-knit unit of soldiers who are looking out for one another, playing as someone who shows no emotion or care for what’s happening makes it difficult for the player to care as well.

The dialogue doesn’t help either, and can be insufferable at times. Every character speaks in that “marine talk” that was so popular in shooters last generation. For example, take this actual dialogue exchange between two of the characters in ODST, whose personalities are too similar to deserve attribution:

“Thanks for picking such a tall building. I’m really digging all these stairs.”

“Do you ever get tired of bitching?”

“You ever get tired of busting my balls?”

“Point taken.”

Everyone in your squad talks like an obnoxious super-marine, which even further dehumanizes these one-dimensional characters, and makes it impossible to care when bad things happen to them.

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Another ineffective, albeit unique, element to ODST is the stealth/sleuth portions of the game which take place in New Mombasa with The Rookie. Bungie stressed that when designing the game, they wanted to make it apparent that ODSTs are considerably weaker than Master Chief, so things like dual-wielding would be taken away and players were given a finite health bar along with their stamina-shields. The thought of not being a powerful spartan and just a vulnerable footsoldier could have been an interesting new twist on the tired Halo formula. But again, it’s not executed well.

The game lets the player know that “stealth” is a viable option, and gives them a silenced pistol and SMG. But what ODST considers picking and choosing engagements and sneaking around simply boils down to running through a level while the Covenant shoots you in the back. It’s not fun, and it’s almost always impractical to avoid enemies instead of just shooting them outright.

During ODST‘s promotion, I specifically remember the words “mystery” and “sleuth” being used to describe what you do. Those words are incredibly inaccurate and misrepresent what comes down to running around a defined area, looking for a contextual action to trigger a campaign mission. Maybe if there were a series of clues you needed to follow before finding the mission trigger, the term “mystery” would be more apt. But following a waypoint and using your enhanced visor to spot an illuminated sniper rifle hung from a wire does not constitute a “detective” mechanic.

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One more element of ODST that I see people praise is the atmosphere. I assume the atmosphere they’re talking about is in the sections in the New Mombasa streets. Critics compliment the ambiance of the desolate city, which calls to the isolation of The Rookie in this dark, dreary environment, filled with dangerous Covenant at every turn. To me, it seems like people think these New Mombasa sections are much more artistically complicated than they really are.

One area I will give credit to with regards to how the tone for these sections is created is the score. Marty O’Donnell does a great job of mixing the iconic sound of Halo with piano and jazz instrumentation to make the city feel empty and isolating. But music is not enough to create the tone that Bungie was going for.

Visually, New Mombasa is simply dark and frustrating. There are few distinct landmarks that separate one section of the small city from another. Also, it’s hard to even focus on the atmosphere when you’re just trying to find out how to navigate around a locked gate that’s blocking you from your next waypoint.

But the primary reason why the mood that’s trying to be established in these section fails to grasp the player’s attention is because so little of the game is spent in the dark New Mombasa. I think fans of this game have this notion that most of the game takes place in these street sections. But most of the action and story takes place during the vibrant, populated flashback missions, which makes the Rookie sections feel like more of a means to an end.

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Ultimately, I think ODST is simply style with no substance. And shitty, ineffective style at that. Yes, a somber and vulnerable mood is trying to be established, but that doesn’t mean it works. Maybe it’s just my tastes, but I can’t understand how anyone can be that engrossed in a campaign with such a lacking ambiance and poorly written characters who have zero distinguishing traits.

If you bought The Master Chief Collection, you’re entitled to a free download of ODST, so if you’re looking for an excuse to play some Halo, go for it. But if you’re considering buying this separately and looking for a compelling story and gameplay that goes above the standard FPS formula, then you’ll have better luck elsewhere.

 

“Unaffiliated”: The Advent of Religious Decline in America

(originally published 2/8/16)

“I’ve never gone to church.”

Michael Kemerer is a 19-year-old college student at Community College of Allegheny County who grew up with religious parents. But having never attended weekly mass as a child, it’s something he’s grown distant from.

“I have nothing against religion, but I’m just not active,” he said.

Kemerer’s story is anything but unique, as a growing number of millennials do not identify with a religion.

According a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, only 63% of American adults say they are “absolutely certain” God exists. The research shows similar declines in other areas of religious affiliation among adults.

An important group in the religious landscape is what is being called the “nones” or people who don’t identify with a particular religion. Almost a quarter of American adults, such as Kemerer, belong to this group. It’s a trend that experts are watching closely and trying to explain.

Elaine Parsons, a historian and professor of religious historical studies at Duquesne University, explains that in the past, churches used to serve a role that is no longer necessary.

“Part of what happened for a long time was that churches served as a system of social organizations,” Parsons said. “There are different ways that we structure ourselves formally, particularly in the United States, and churches were the biggest of those clubs and voluntary organizations.”

Whereas churches used to be a primary mode of socialization and communication, new mediums like the Internet have replaced the non-spiritual benefits of attending church, according to Parsons.

This shift has certainly been felt by those within the religious community, including the Rev. William Christy, Assistant Director of the Spiritan Campus Ministry at Duquesne University.

Having spent over twenty years on mission trips outside of the country, Christy has seen the religious decline in America fall rapidly. He has watched the increase of the “nones” and their detachment from their religious tradition.

“They’ll say ‘I grew up such-and-such, but I don’t practice now.’ They see themselves culturally in that group, but not as active participants,” Christy said.

He notices this spiritual disconnect emerging from middle-class suburbia, a place he believes suffers from a lack of community.

“Community and religion are tied very much so,” he said. “That’s why you see such strong community in inter-city and rural areas, because community is necessary for life.”

While priests like Christy are fighting to rekindle that sense of community, Elaine Parsons believes that this dip in spiritual affinity is just part of a historical pattern that has repeated itself time and again throughout history.

“There have been times when churchgoing was very normative, and there have been times where there has been very high rates of disinterest,” she said. “It’s almost like a natural flow. I believe that in 20 years, we’ll have another comeback of religion in the United States.”

But for millennial Michael Kemerer, it’ll take more than an uptrend to go to church.

“Evidence,” Kemerer said, when asked what it’d take to make him believe. “Just facts.”

“Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4” Review

(originally published February 14, 2016)

The Naruto Ultimate Ninja series is practically as revered by Naruto fans as the manga itself. For 10 years, it set the standard for anime-based fighting games, and how well a video game can do justice to its source material. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 marks the end for the story of Naruto as well as the beloved series. A delay in early August kept fans clamoring for what would was surely one of the most anticipated anime games ever produced. But what should have been the perfect storm settles for a mediocre shower of shame, due to its downright lazy execution.

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Storm 4 picks up at the end of Storm 3‘s DLC, just before Naruto and co. unmask Tobi. With the previous games’ free-roaming portions relegated to a separate Adventure mode, players now experience the manga’s climactic battles back to back in Story Mode. While the previous Storm games are known for their gorgeous cell-shaded visuals, the earlier moments of the story that have already been shown in the anime are represented using still frames from the show, rather than being animated in-game. It’s a lazy cop-out given that the previous numbered Storm games all had in-game cut scenes despite covering way more of the Naruto story. Listening to the dialouge over a still frame is incredibly dull, making the large bits of narrative in-between fights painful to sit through.

But the fights themselves are well-done, and characteristic of the over-the-top action fans have come to expect from CyberConnect2. The fights at the climax of Naruto’s story are all batshit insane, and the cinematic boss battles in Storm 4 meet that high standard of ludicrousness. The battles are fun and varied, but the lack of rendered cut scenes makes the story feel disjointed. The emotional highs of the manga are unable to be properly conveyed as the story is choppily experienced piece by piece.

In an attempt to fill out the relatively short amount of story, there’s a separate Adventure mode (using the same environments from Storm 3), where players can take up odd jobs and side missions. The 2-3 hour main quest in Adventure mode involves Sakura following around Naruto and Hinata and trying to spark their romance. It’s surprisingly engaging, and honestly explores the relationship between Naruto and Hinata better than The Last movie did. But after it’s over, the rest of the mode comprises of mindless side quests, of which there’s little incentive to finish aside from reaching 100% completion.

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As for the fighting itself, this is the one area Storm 4 truly surpasses its predecessors. The biggest improvement is the frame rate, which is double what it was on last-gen consoles. Fights are remarkably faster, and the result is battles that are smarter and more intense. Standard matches are also decided on the best of 3 rounds, which is a step in the right direction given how quickly versus matches would end in previous games.

Additionally, the ability to swap between characters puts a much larger significance on team composition. Apart from being able to use partners to extend combos without expending chakra, having a teammate with a killer Awakening can make a previously unplayable character suddenly viable. The concept of having a “team” was never fully realized in a Storm game until now, and it adds a ton of new depth to what was admittedly a shallow fighting game series.

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But what many were expecting out of the final Storm game was a be-all-end-all Naruto extravaganza, brimming with new content as well as everything else from previous games. However, in this endeavor, Storm 4 is the most disappointing Storm game ever released.

Starting with what’s new, there are 14 new characters in Storm 4. When compared to the generous heap of new ninja supplied by Naruto Storm: Revolution, the character select screen in Storm 4 feels pretty stale. Although the major players from the story mode are playable, half-built characters from previous games like the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist seemed like obvious candidates for inclusion in this conclusive Storm game, but are frustratingly omitted.

As for costumes, there is only one new costume in the game. Not even Seventh Hokage Naruto is unlockable; instead, Naruto and Sasuke’s appearances from Chapter 700 are sold in separate DLCs. As for the bonus costumes from the previous games, all of them are on the disc. However, only about half of them are available to unlock via in-game currency, and the other half are only available through buying DLC (even though the computer still uses them during Survival mode).

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Compared to Revolution which was completely filled with random but thoughtful content like Mecha-Naruto and costume accessories (both of which are not in this game), Storm 4 cuts corners in almost every way possible. It was delayed for 5 months in August, yet the finished product feels lazy and rushed. As one of the many people who’ve followed these games for years and vehemently anticipated this concluding act, I just find it so sad that this is the bang that such a storied series goes out with. It’s hollow and mediocre, and we deserve better.

Devs that put out unfinished games are scum. But devs who shamelessly try to squeeze every last dollar out of their loyal fans are even lower than that.

 

“Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” Review

The final chapter of Nathan Drake’s story is the culmination of one of last generation’s most iconic new IPs and developer Naughty Dog‘s mastery of cinematic storytelling.

Following Drake on his last adventure through the jungles of Madagascar and rolling hills of Scotland, it’s easy to get swept up in the stunning vistas and lose sight of those elements that make Uncharted 4 a great video game, rather than just an entrancing playable movie.

And truthfully, although the “video game” aspects aren’t as groundbreaking as the game’s visuals, A Thief’s End is worthy of its spot in nearly everyone’s Game of the Year rankings.uncharted4review8

Taking place three years after Uncharted 3A Thief’s End begins with Drake living a comfortable but unsatisfying life in suburbia with Elena. Drake longs for his days of thieving and exploring, but has grown to accept the mundane safety of the American rat race for the sake of his new wife.

But Drake’s new life is interrupted by his brother Sam, who had been assumed dead following a partially successful prison escape. Sam explains that Drake must help him find the lost treasure of pirate Henry Avery to repay a debt he owes the Panamanian mob. Drake (not-so-reluctantly) agrees, and gets pulled back into the treasure hunting game for one last job to save his brother.

The story centers around the tension of Drake having to choose between risking his life on another potentially fatal adventure for his brother and giving up his aspirations for the sake of Elena. A Thief’s End is the most thematically complicated of any of the Uncharted series, but it still maintains the fun levity of the series’ past.

Superb voice acting from series regulars Nolan North and Emily Rose is no surprise, but it’s Troy Baker as Sam who completely steals the show. Baker’s delivery of Sam’s emotionally complicated dialogue showcases his range as a voice actor, and he’s the center of nearly every scene he’s in.

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In-between the first rate cut-scenes, the skirmishes are a mixed bad. The shooting’s responsive and the cover system’s competent. There’s a certain weight to combat that feels leftover from The Last of Us, and it fits comfortably into Uncharted’s realistic aesthetic.

But while most everything in Uncharted 4 feels like a step forward for the series, the melee combat will feel like a remission for Uncharted veterans. In Uncharted 3, hand-to-hand felt intuitive, and there was a seamless transition from shooting to melee. Fighting someone with your fists in Uncharted 4 feels clunky, and it’s usually a better idea to shoot an enemy outright than to struggle with the controls.

Stealth is another sore spot; it’s something that each Uncharted game has struggled with, and although this is the best it’s ever been in the series, that’s not saying much. The inclusion of an awareness meter and the ability to mark enemies helps a bit, but there are no additional stealth techniques to help make sneaking easier. There’s no way to call out to guards, no long-distance takedowns, or any other viable strategies besides just patiently waiting for guards to turn around and snapping their necks. It turns sneaking into a chore that you’re better off skipping by just shooting your way through stealth sections.

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While the quality of the combat is inconsistent, the exploration sections are solid, mostly due to some of the new mechanics added to change up what was becoming a tired aspect of Uncharted. The new grappling hook opens up some interesting puzzle opportunities, and gives Drake a quick way to escape danger during firefights (although the gag of “sliding down a hill and having to grapple something at the last second” wears thin by the third act).

The gigantic puzzles also do not disappoint, as Uncharted 4 takes full advantage of this entry appearing on the PlayStation 4. There aren’t any brainbusters, but the level design of some of the large-scale set pieces is awe-inspiring. Particularly memorable is the clock tower puzzle, which, as is tradition in the Uncharted series, gets climatically destroyed after Drake solves it.

And also like the other Uncharted games, the multiplayer in A Theif’s End feels like a tacked-on afterthought to add a perceived amount of value that would have been lost on an exclusively singleplayer game. There are no stand-out modes or features in Uncharted 4‘s multiplayer. It’s essentially just the combat framework of the campaign ripped out and thrown into an online setting. It’s functional, but there’s nothing remarkable to get excited about either. It’s hard to imagine any player developing an attachment to such a mediocre multiplayer, as it’s likely that the only people playing Uncharted 4 online regularly are the people who don’t have any other games to play on PS4.

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While the footage of this game speaks for itself, it has to be noted how incredible Uncharted 4 looks. The cuts and scratches that cover Nathan Drake’s face add that much more believably to Nolan North’s already remarkable performance. You can almost feel how slick the rain-covered cliffs of the Madagascan jungle are as Drake slips and falls onto the hard rock bed. Sand pours from piles of shrinking sandbags that you’re using as temporary cover.

Simply put, Uncharted 4 is one of the best looking console games ever made. This is the kind of game your dad stops you to talk about on Christmas morning. It’s one of the first major steps forward for graphics this console generation, and it’s going to be a treat seeing the next thing Naughty Dog’s in-house engine cooks up.

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Although A Thief’s End is a better film than it is a video game, it’s still a really damn good game. It showcases the magic that happens when the best of the two mediums collide. Uncharted 4 is the new benchmark for cinematic games, and for that, it’s a standout in what has been an excellent year for AAA video games.