Just like last year, we thought we’d get Spring good and going by asking the Ontological Geek staff to list and talk about some games. This year, the prompt different somewhat.
1. The Underappreciated Gem: Talk about a game which received negative or little critical attention which you think deserves a second look.
2. The Overhyped Garbage: Conversely, name and talk about a game which received positive reviews and critical attention but isn’t actually any good — a game either overhyped or overanalyzed when it’s just not worth that.
3. The Current Game: What are you playing the most of right now, and why?
Here, in no particular order, are our answers:
Underappreciated Gem: Final Fantasy XIII
Whatever happened to Final Fantasy? Once it was a venerable warhorse, stalwart defender of the mighty JPRG, cornerstone genre of gaming in the 1990s. Now the acclaimed series has been reduced to a joke, an exercise in rigorous self-mockery, almost universally regarded with distrust and disappointment. As much, or more, of a shade of its former self as Auron turned out to be, as antithetical to its most celebrated entries as AVALANCHE was to Shin-Ra, as out-of-touch with its former fanbase as Kefka was with his sanity. As…well, you get the idea: it sucks now.
Many gamers point to the release of Final Fantasy XIII as the moment in which the veil was lifted. Final Fantasy XII arguably had its share of problems, but the main charge that could be levied against the twelfth installment is that it was just plain weird. Hardly a searing indictment, but Final Fantasy XIII took things to a whole new level of controversial, what with its laughably baffling story (“Fal’Cie turn people into L’Cie and give them a Focus to fulfill which depending on the outcome will turn them into either Crystals Forever, or another type of creature called a C’ieth” – WTF), its depressingly empty world, shoddy plotting, relentless linearity, and stripped-down button-masher of a battle system.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these things are true. But, as soon as I bought my PS3 in 2010, the first thing I did was drive 30 miles to my friend’s house to borrow the game. I played it all the way through, then bought a copy for myself, then took that copy over to another friend’s house to play it with him.
The game has endless flaws which we could spend the entire roundup picking apart if we wanted to, and I’m not going to argue that point or try to defend the game critically. Sadly, it may well have been the writing on the wall for Final Fantasy.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. I found something, I don’t know, genuine in how bare-bones the experience was, sort of the essential Final Fantasy experience distilled down to its basal components for examination, and I can’t help but think that that’s what our friends at Square-Enix might have been aiming to accomplish.
Or maybe I just got a major kick out of seeing Alexander being summoned in HD for the first time, who knows.
Overhyped Garbage: BioShock Infinite
Confession time: I liked BioShock Infinite. Still do. Might even crack the sucker back open (with the reverse-side box art displayed proudly, of course) to play it again this spring. Hell, I’ve publically praised it before on this very website.
That said, I don’t think it’s that great of a game, and I certainly don’t think it deserves the attention and conversation it continues to receive.
Of course it got glowing praise from the rubber-stamp community when it first came out. Okay, that’s a given. But the games-crit circuit continues, as of the second-to-latest post on Critical Distance, to proliferate the same three arguments over and over again: (1.) its box art sucks, (2.) it’s really friggin’ violent, and (3.) it’s pretty misogynistic, if not openly regressive.
It’s a Call of Duty or GTA. It’s a “AAA” blockbuster popcorn dudebro game, which, as certain sober voices have contended, places it in a genre which deserves little intentional consideration. It seems to me that because the first installment of BioShock (no, before you ask, BioShock 2 does not count) made a bunch of references to Ayn Rand, that we critics suffered under the collective delusion that Infinite was a game that was supposed to make some Grand Political or Moral Statement, and it’s time we shed ourselves of that fantasy.
At the end of the day, it’s a “blow shit up and save the princess from a tower” game. Elizabeth is literally locked up in a literal tower. It’s a Mario game in which you tear people’s heads off. Of course, games like these do set progressive storytelling back about two decades, and one might be rightly concerned about why they continue to persist in the zeitgeist at all, and why so many folks seem to enjoy them.
That is a conversation that needs to be had, and I’m glad to see that we’re having it. What concerns me is that I sense progressive games writers (me included) have been searching in vain for a whole year now, looking for some infinitesimal nugget of redeeming, lasting social or political value in Infinite, and that the reason we’ve come up empty is that (by design or by mistake) there was nothing there to begin with.
Current Game: Hearthstone
World of Warcraft has failed to woo me. For some reason the prospect of traipsing about the countryside to bring the high priestess seven sheep tongues hasn’t lured me in so far, and the thing is, I’m very surprised that it hasn’t.
Blizzard, even post-apocalypse (“apocalypse” here defined as “Activision”), has nearly always managed to create just the right cocktail of progress and challenge to guarantee my nigh-unwavering attention for months at a time. Hearthstone is no exception.
My friend and colleague Hannah has described it as “arcade Magic,” and I think that’s pretty apt. It’s basically a super-fast-paced, pared-down version of The Gathering with familiar Warcraft faces. Some have argued it’s pay-to-win drivel, but my experience has led me to believe that one can spend absolutely nothing on the game and win satisfying and engaging ranked matches consistently. Provided you play your cards right (I’m HILARIOUS), you can circumvent the effects of legendary minions which require much more time and money than I’m willing to invest in acquiring.
I won’t waste too much time explaining my personal strategies or current attachment to the game, because I already bored poor Oscar half to death geeking out about it in our first podcast. If you’d like to challenge me sometime, though, I play in the “Americas” region under the BattleTag Zertoss#1892. See you on the battlefield!
Underappreciated Gem: The Bouncer
When you think Square Enix, you probably think Final Fantasy, bizarrely-dressed people beating up strange creatures with swords, guns, and magics, and weird hair. But at the dawn of the PS2, Square (before the merger with Enix, mind) released my personal favorite action RPG before the genre had even fully developed. Mixing a Final Fantasy script (to summarize: Cloud has to rescue Aeris/th from Shinra. Panther-ladies, robots, leather-clad madmen, and space ships ensue) with an RPG-brawler that thoughtfully made the most of the PS2’s pressure-sensitive controller design. In short, The Bouncer showed great promise and a revolutionary potential direction for Square’s flagship series that, tragically, was forsaken.
The Bouncer could almost a be Final Fantasy game if you gave the protagonists weapons. We have a party of three characters, Squal- er, I mean Sion, Volt, a former bodyguard of the CEO of said megacorp, and Kou, who is mysterious. The three are bouncers at a bar called Fate, and are called to action when Sion’s girlfriend is kidnapped by the Mikado group. Make your jokes now, o ye fans of Gilbert and Sullivan.
One of my favorite things about stories in games is the propensity the medium has, not only for branching storylines, but for the revealing of different information on subsequent playthroughs. I credit The Bouncer as the first time I’d ever seen this done. For you see, unlike other games that allow you to choose a character and follow hir path, The Bouncer lets you choose your character multiple times throughout the story as the party splits up or gets into fights. This gives a unique way of getting to know the characters, and adds variety to a story progression which is, I confess, a bit railroady.
The Bouncer’s one flaw, I feel, was that it was too short. Dwarfed by even your average Final Fantasy game, all three legs of The Bouncer can be completed in less than thirty hours easily. Revolutionary and exciting as the combat was, its complexity was stifled by the short narrative. But, as with so many of my favorite games, I love The Bouncer for what it represents, what it could have been. The seeds of greatness are there, and were its formula returned to and expanded upon, I feel as though Square Enix could potentially revive the Final Fantasy series. Strong words, you say? Well, go play The Bouncer and tell me I’m wrong!
Overhyped Garbage: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I’ve been almost as inconsistent in my feelings toward Skyrim as I’ve been sure that Fallout: New Vegas is the best game ever, ever. For all its good qualities (and I’m not denying them here), Bethesda’s most recent single-player time sink has just never been able to enrapture me the way its older sibling Morrowind did. And now I’m pretty sure I know why.
The Elder Scrolls series was forged in a different era from our own. These were the days of proper Adventure Games, complete with Adventure Game Logic. It was in this era that the influence of the Dungeons and the Dragons was most visible. I am by no means a pen and paper RPG expert, having played a grand total of four sessions of any in my life, but I am versed in the core concepts and mechanics. In this case, the concept in questions is the Character Sheet. Virtually every RPG that’s ever been released has some form of character screen, stat screen, what have you, and all of them draw from D&D in this.
The first three Elder Scrolls games draw so heavily from their D&D roots you can almost hear the dice rolling every time you take a swing (Arena and Daggerfall, the first two in the series, even have you fill out literal character sheet forms in traditional style). Morrowind, though it clouded the process somewhat, still confronted you with a menu that boiled the PC down to a series of skills and values, and clever manipulation of the spellmaking skill permitted game-breaking levels of skill/value manipulation (I’m looking at you, Scroll of Icarian Flight!). These games knew what they were and were proud of their lineage. Skyrim, however, seems a bit ashamed.
The biggest change made to Skyrim was the change to more “action-focused” gameplay. Skyrim feels radically different because, at heart, it’s more a third-person action-stabby game than an adventure simulation suite, as previous titles had been. The spellmaking was removed, a high enough acrobatics skill would not let you soar through the heavens like Superman, and over all the game was more grounded in the world itself than the numbers behind it. Had this been the first game in a bold new IP from a Tripe‑A developer (hah, like that’s even a thing these days), my opinion would probably be quite different. But instead, Skyrim’s abandonment of what made the Elder Scrolls games so wondrous in the first place renders it just another massive open-world fantasy game where you can kill dragons with the power of your voice.
Current Game: The Sims 3
The Sims has long been an obsession of my sister’s, and I’d spent years alternatively rolling my eyes at her guilty pleasure and being slightly unsettled by tales of her malevolence in the lives of her sims. I’m a bit of a late adopter of the franchise, but I find myself mesmerized by it. What little time I’ve had for gaming these past few weeks has been eaten up by this new and wondrous beast.
As I play The Sims 3, a tool which lets me live a satisfying life that, circumstantially, is only just out of my reach, I find myself unsure whether it is a good thing, a worthy use of my time, or whether it’s a problematic pastime. Don’t misunderstand me; gone is the contempt I once had for what I understood to be a me simulator, a surrogate life device. I get it now. It’s very satisfying in its own way to make your sims do things, and with so many expansions currently available the possibilities are approaching infinite. Whereas I go to Mass Effect to be Commander-fucking-Shepard, I go to The Sims to be Hannah-fucking-DuVoix. I get to live my life sans the bullshit, which is pretty cool and I can see why people like living without bullshit. By the same token, though, while I go to games to live another life, I find myself going to The Sims to live the same life I do now. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but it is a bit peculiar.
Underappreciated Gem: Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
I’ve probably mentioned it around here at some stage before, so it may not be a surprise to regular readers, but oh my sweet Jesus I fucking love the Legacy of Kain series, particularly LoK: Soul Reaver. I mean… wow. To be fair, it’s hardly obscure and was pretty well received on release, ending up along with its sequel on Sony’s “Greatest Hits” list. But while reviews of the game were largely positive, many games of Soul Reaver’s era sadly pre-date the widespread, in-depth and above all smart criticism which the gaming world is now able to provide. I want to read huge great essays on Amy Hennig’s beautifully written and performed script, on the sprawling, ruinous Gothic landscape, on the time-twisting Mobius Strip of a plot, on the cyclical themes of friend/enemy, nature/architecture, life/death, horizontal/vertical spaces. On top of all that the game was bloody brilliant, one of the first to really portray an effective open world and technologically revolutionary in its use of in-play loading to avoid the dreaded downtime of loading screens. How many games since 1999 have jumped on those bandwagons?
Overhyped Garbage: Dragon Age: Origins
I played through the whole of the first Dragon Age. I’m sure I did. At least I think I’m sure I did. I remember some generic elven and dwarf folks, a bit of tension between some religious and some magical folks. Some… demons maybe? Dragons? Were there dragons? I think I might have started mixing the memories up with Oblivion and Skyrim. I can’t be too down on Dragon Age because I know I didn’t hate it. It’s much worse than that. I nothing it. Recollections conjure no interest, no emotion, no individual moments of brilliance or spectacular failure. I know many, certainly among the boys and girls of OntoGeek, have great affection for the game but I can find nothing but a vague sense of it being a thing that happened.
Current Game: God of War: Ascension
Ostensibly I’m most of the way through God of War: Ascension just now. I say ostensibly because I haven’t played it in about a month and probably won’t be returning. It was ok while it lasted, but being a fan of the series I can’t overlook the fact that the magic has gone. It’s like making that meal you’ve made so many times before, all the ingredients are right, you’ve put them all in the right order, mixed appropriately and pre-heated the oven but somehow, and it’s so hard to say how, it’s come out tasting like warmed shite. The only legitimate objective criticism I can levy is that the camera, at times, does some very silly things, but that isn’t the real problem here. It just doesn’t feel right, and in God of War the feeling of the play, the raw, battering-ram viscerality of inhabiting Kratos, is the heart of the thing. Ascension feels counterfeit; it’s God of War in name but not soul.
The original Assassin’s Creed is far from perfect, but I had to play back through parts of it the other day for a project, and was struck by how much better it is than I remembered. There are problems, of course: repetitive mission structures, a clumsy combat system, a bizarrely anachronistic American accent. But it’s well-structured, surprisingly well-written, and, perhaps above all else, it has focus. Later Assassin’s Creed games became about doing whatever the hell you wanted in various historically themed playgrounds, but Assassin’s Creed the first is about assassinating people. Sure, you can go collect flags, but every single sidequest in the game directly relates to your main mission: plotting to kill that guy over there.
You see, sidequests are the devil, because they break the suspension of disbelief (Commander Shepard takes time off from saving the galaxy to get involved in minor mob disputes/find lost jewelry/do archeology), distract from what the game is about, and waste the player’s time. Assassin’s Creed gets this. Considering how bloated later games became (Play tower defense! Manage a villa! Slowly purchase every single property in Rome and engage in civic beautification!), it’s wonderful to play a game which is about something, and which sticks to that theme.
Also, Assassin’s Creed allows you to climb up buildings in medieval Damascus, and then jump off of them.
Overhyped Garbage: Braid
I kinda hate Braid. This isn’t really fair: in many respects, Braid is a pretty good game. Yet Braid suffers from a problem: in between the fairly neat time-manipulation/platforming puzzles, there are these rooms where you read text, text which lays out whatever plot the game is supposed to have. The game would be infinitely better without this text, which is vague “deep” nonsense which might be about relationships, might be about time travel, and might also be about the atomic bomb.
I’ve read worse, don’t get me wrong. But I have little tolerance for this sort of refuge in obtuseness, where a writer tries to use exciting words and supposed profundities to hide the fact that he or she doesn’t really know what he or she wants to say. You might call this “Donnie Darko Syndrome,” if you felt like being combative and snide. (I often feel like being combative and snide.) Texts with Donnie Darko Syndrome try to make the reader do all of the heavy lifting for them — by digging through the text in an attempt to find meaning, the reader will inadvertently imbue the text with more weight than it really deserves.
Braid has Donnie Darko Syndrome, and the lavish, often uncritical praise it received implies that many people fell for it, and that makes me sort of sad and sort of angry. Of course, I’m also a curmudgeon, so maybe this doesn’t mean anything — maybe Braid really is a beautiful, transcendent, meaningful story about much of human experience, and if I’d just try a little harder, I might find it and be forever changed. But I kinda doubt it.
Current Game: Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm
I played a ton of Starcraft: Brood War over the last 15 years, but never played online save against people I knew. That said, while I was hardly a professional player, I felt like I was pretty good at Starcraft: Brood War. So I downloaded Starcraft 2 the other day, now that I have a computer good enough to run it. After playing through the first campaign, I saddled up and went online.
I am terrible at Starcraft 2.
Or, maybe more to the point: everyone else is great at Starcraft 2.
It’s the only sport I’ve ever felt like learning to play. In between shifts at the restaurant I have been found looking up and memorizing build orders that morph into different strategies. I have been watching replays of famous matches. I follow a twitter account which offers helpful tips. I have won precisely three games of Starcraft 2 against real people, yet I keep playing.
Underappreciated Gem: Command & Conquer: Red Alert
I don’t think – by any margin – that this game was ever negatively received, but it has receded a little, because we’re all now so fancy and flash with modern gaming systems. But it’s not so much the game I’m interested in, as the mode of playing it. I’m talking about Command & Conquer: Red Alert. A game that – blockily, chirpily – offered us an alternative history in which Hitler had been assassinated with a handshake (no, really!), and in which slightly bemused actors sat around in starched uniforms performing mission briefing FMVs for your delight. What was great about C&C: RA was its co-operative multiplayer. Do you remember? In order to join ranks with a friend, you had to use the PlayStation’s odd little device that enabled two consoles to be hooked up with two TVs. It was really like playing Battleships. I have such strong memories of sitting with a friend in front of these little, boxy TV sets and chuckling gleefully as we dealt damage and tank rolled the allies into oblivion (a sounder strategy there never was). Because wireless/online play is just so obvious now (but I don’t bother with it, personally), I think we forget the lengths we used to go to in order to play with friends.
Overhyped Garbage: Metal Gear Solid
Perhaps I can’t offer anything concrete here, except a general distaste regarding certain things I’ve played, or a coldness to particular games that I’m honestly not interested in touching. So, for example, I’ve always felt, as hard as I may otherwise try, that Metal Gear Solid – as a series – is something lumpen and strangled and just dull that I just don’t get. I did half enjoy the first PlayStation game, but on watching friends play later versions, or when I’ve borrowed later versions myself, I was simply bored by it. Which is a shame, because I wanted to like it.
Current Game: Far Crys 2&3, The Promised Land, TRIHAYWBFRFYH
A few things, but in broken episodes and not very consistently. I tend to either play games too much, or not at all. I’ve been crackling and whooping my way through Far Cry 2 and 3, because I picked both up second hand for next to nothing. While “2” is perhaps rustier and more monotonous in the long run, it has this cynical, extremely dubious underbelly that – with its spare storytelling and drum music and simple, thuggish violence – it achieves in a way that “3”, with all the stops pulled out, simply can’t achieve. “3” is fun, but so densely attempting to entertain you that I keep retreating back to “2”. But then I become jaded and everything is awful, so I go back to “3” and paddle around for a bit in the warm sea.
Also, I’ve been playing “The Promised Land” — which I’ve written about, so that’ll be on the site soon -, which is a procedural walking simulator, a pilgrimage “game”. It’s very quirky and paired down in a way that I find beautiful. Also, I’ve been playing TRIHAYWBFRFYH – a game which, lasting twenty minutes, sees you exist in the final moments before the world ends. As an ambient/electronic music fan, the music is just haunting and elegant and well worth a listen to on its own, by Connor Sherlock, here: http://connorsherlock.bandcamp.com/.
Underappreciated Gem: Miasmata
Definitely Miasmata. Initially the game did receive some well-deserved preview coverage because of the fact that it was a complicated 3D rendition of an island ecosystem, made wholly a team of two brothers, no mean feat. However, upon release and after the initial review cycle, the game dropped under the radar, which is a pity, as I think it is a game that is not only a huge achievement for such a small team on the surface level — the game looks and sounds beautiful — but they also do interesting things in terms of game mechanics and narrative.
What attracted me to it was a suspenseful, but essentially non-violent approach to having the game’s protagonist navigate a foreign environment, and battle his own growing fever. The main goal is survival, and to achieve that, you’ll have to map the island, stay hydrated, and gather the plants and fungi you need to make medicine for yourself. While the environment is challenging enough, there’s also one other inhabitant of the island that eventually comes after you…
I don’t want to spoil the game for you, but let’s just say that I think the game deserves some time in the spotlight, both as an impressive first achievement, and as an engrossing experiment with new types of gameplay and narrative. If you want to read a more in-depth analysis of the game’s story and spaces, I’ve written about it in the fourth issue of Five out of Ten magazine.
Overhyped Garbage: Abstention
This is a difficult one. I can think of games that were warmly accepted by most people, but which left me relatively cold. Or of games that are totally reprehensible, but then again, those don’t usually get universal acclaim. I’m afraid I’ll have to bow out of this one.
Current Game: Batman: Arkham Asylum & Alpha Protocol
I’ve just finished playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was a lot of fun, surprisingly so. I have a bit of catching up to do when it comes to superhero fiction, having never really been attracted to it as a kid or teen, and only experiencing it superficially, but at least this interpretation of the Batman mythology was right on the money. Extremely slick melee combat and powerful spatial navigation options — my favourtie thing was gliding down from towers using the batcloak — and a shlocky story that hit all the right notes. I’ll be going to Arkham City pretty soon.
But first, I’m diving into Alpha Protocol. RPGs might still be my favourite genre, and I’m interested to see what Obsidian did in this game. I’ve heard good and bad things about this game, so I’m interested to see what my own take will be. So far, I’m done with the Saudi Arabia and Rome-based part of this espionage story, and I’m particularly enjoying the conversation system with its many positive and negative results depending on your every choice. At the same time, the setting as it is worked out sort of leaves me cold. It adds in a little too little of that James Bond flair, while it does have its problems with female characters. You can follow my tweeted thoughts about the game via the #qwalphaprotocol hashtag.