Westworld Ep. 4: Dissonance Theory – Review and Analysis

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It seems weird to start reviewing a television show in the middle of its first season, but I get the feeling most people, like me, have only just started watching Westworld in the last week or two. I’ve never reviewed a show before, on this blog or otherwise, but thanks to HBO NOW everyone can NOW stream Home Box Office’s slew of raunchy-yet-thought-provoking programming without bending to the will of the cable companies. I’ve taken a couple film classes, watched a lot of TV, read a few books on film critique, and listened to a lot of podcasts on TV and film. I’m no expert on TV criticism, but I am discerning in my tastes and try to hold a high standard as an amateur reviewer.

As for the show itself, if you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend you do so before reading much further. And if you really want to understand where it’s coming from, rent the original 1973 movie, Westworld, on your streaming platform of choice. Like or hate its campy thrills, Michael Crichton’s original story sets the stage for the show, and the show often references details from the film, making it worth the watch. There’s even a sequel called Futureworld and five episodes of another series, Beyond Westworld, out there for completionists.

For those of you that want to get to the new show right off the bat, I’ll explain the premise: a bunch of scientists, doctors, engineers, and investors some time in the future have created a realistic theme park called Westworld, an area of land designed to look and feel like the old west, complete with rattlesnakes, horses, cattle, vultures, cacti, tumbleweeds, rocky desert, saloons, brothels, and the like. Robots virtually identical to humans inhabit Westworld and act as hosts for their human guests. Guests spend $40,000 a day to do whatever they wish in Westworld with little fear of bodily harm or pesky conscience. But something strange has happened in Westworld; some of the robots have become aware of their servitude and don’t much like getting killed and raped for the amusement of the guests. In the original film, most of the humans died at the hands of the single-minded androids, but the show has taken a more nuanced approach of making the hosts more sympathetic and less Terminator-esque. Think Jurassic Park meets I, Robot. And if you want more details, definitely watch the show and check out HBO’s companion material at discoverwestworld.com.

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All right, from here on out, assume there are spoilers. Episode four takes its title from the psychology concept of cognitive dissonance, which basically states that when humans experience conflicting beliefs or behaviors, they feel discomfort and aim to eradicate the conflict. We most strongly associate this experience with Dolores as she grows ever more uncomfortable with her role, but several other robots, humans, and groups act out this idea as well. This episode also features a strange pairing of writer Ed Brubaker with director Vincenzo Natali. Brubaker, best known for his work on Captain America and other Marvel comics, brings more humor and video game references to the show than we’ve seen so far. While entertaining, some of the more self-referential lines, particularly Logan’s, may prove too quaint for some viewers. Natali has had middling success in the science fiction genre in the past (though Splice is best forgotten), and he offers some interesting visual ideas in this episode. Funnily enough, his film Cube also features a maze full of danger and intrigue. Dissonance Theory falls a little short of the rest of the show’s higher standard, though, and Natali’s direction bears the bulk of that blame.

The first scene opens with a shot of Bernard entering Dolores’s cell, though we see him distorted through the reflection of Dolores’s iris. This helps solidify us in Dolores’s camp; we now empathize with her most of all and see the ensuing conversation from her point of view. Dolores mirrors Bernard in this scene, though, as she wants to feel the grief for her dead loved ones, the same as him. She refuses Bernard’s offer to erase the memories of her parents, because she’s learned the value of memories. Evan Rachel Wood continues to deliver outstanding performances in this episode, effortlessly transforming from one emotion to the next.

Dolores has evolved alarmingly fast in four episodes, to the point where she can mix lines from her script with words she thinks up herself. In one of the best lines of the show, she expounds, “I feel spaces opening up inside of me, like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.” She’s essentially performing verbal jazz, knowing the basic form of her programmed response and choosing to “play over” that response with her own style and expression. Her father, Peter Abernathy, performed a similar act in the first episode when he quoted Shakespeare to express his resentment towards Ford and Bernard, but he never improvised to the extent his daughter does. The idea of a building with unexplored rooms calls open-world video games to mind, in which players spend most of their time in search of more places to explore until they exhaust the supply and move on to a new game. Ultimately, Bernard helps Dolores realize that she wants to escape from Westworld, and he bestows upon her the quest to find the center of the maze. This sets Dolores towards the same goal as the Man in Black, and he and Dolores will probably soon cross paths again.

For a brief moment after the first scene, we see Dolores wake up in Logan and William’s camp. This scene will likely fuel more fan theories about alternate timelines, but there’s no way to prove them conclusively. In the middle of the night, some Westworld employees may have dragged Dolores off for maintenance while Logan and William slept and returned her a few hours later. At any rate, we haven’t seen enough evidence to confirm either side of the argument yet, and viewers should remain incredulous.

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Throughout the episode, Maeve’s memories return bit by bit, forming one of the three narratives we see play out in the park; the other two being Lawrence and the Man in Black’s hunt for an egg-laying snake, and William, Logan, and Dolores’s adventure. In the end, only Maeve’s narrative comes to a real conclusion, as she discovers with Hector that she lives in a false world and nothing she does in it matters. Her discomfort grows as she notices more and more inconsistencies, until finally the bullet from inside her confirms that someone set her life on repeat. Who knows what she’ll do next, but Maeve has proven smart, strong, and resourceful in the past, so she probably won’t take her newfound existence lightly.

Outside the fantasy, we continue to see power struggles arise from every confrontation. Elsie remains the most in tune with the hosts, but Theresa and Bernard go over her head without a second thought. Notably, the QA department at Westworld seems to get about as much respect from the programmers as they do in the video game industry, which is probably why Stubbs rarely talks back to the higher-ups. Bernard continues to brush off Elsie’s attempts to unravel the park’s mysteries, even after she declares that everyone has an agenda but her. Bernard insists that the carving on the turtle shell can’t be Orion, but we can’t believe he’ll so easily thwart Elsie’s curiosity. Shannon Woodward continues to be a joy to watch and provides smart humor in stark contrast to Ben Barnes’s winking Logan.

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The episode drags throughout the middle section, but we get enough exposition, revelations, and Ingrid Berdal side-boob to stick with the characters we’ve learned to care for. While the script falls flat in places, we do see some memorable interactions between key characters. Dolores, triggered by Lawrence’s daughter, has flashbacks of her past role, and for one moment we even see her bent over her own grave. This may mean Dolores is destined to die, but more likely it insinuates the change within Dolores’s mind and the death of her naivete. She also expresses to William precisely her situation via another cattle drive metaphor: her and her kind exist only for the slaughter. Whether her status as the Judas steer will lead to the destruction of the rest of the herd seems up to her.

Armistice accepts the Man in Black’s ludicrous wager, which he wins in the most cartoonish fashion. He needs only a few explosive cigars to break Hector out of jail and once again save Lawrence from impending doom. Lawrence’s disbelief reaches its zenith as he exclaims, “Motherfucker!” From now on we can expect him to stay loyal to the Man in Black and reconcile the inconsistencies in his life with the truth that Ed Harris’s character can perform the impossible. Unsurprisingly, Armistice points the Man in Black in the direction of Wyatt, the same villain from Teddy’s newly-uploaded backstory.

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Finally, we get back to the meat of the story with a showdown between Theresa and Ford. Unfortunately, Sidse Knudsen struggles exceedingly with an American accent during this conversation. She emotes wonderfully, though, and we should forgive her for not navigating Brubaker’s script with the fairest of grace. Despite Bernard’s post-coital coaching and encouragement, Theresa doesn’t stand a chance against Ford’s powers of intimidation and observation. Anthony Hopkins brilliantly plays a wealthy plantation-owner, though perhaps we could have done without such obvious slavery symbolism. Ford exhibits unprecedented control over the hosts, paralyzing them with seemingly nothing more than a thought. At this point, we should consider the notion that Ford is a cyborg more seriously, as it’s unlikely such control comes without technological means.

As Theresa’s memories and assumptions literally get bulldozed, we see the conclusion of Dolores, William, Logan, Maeve, and Hector’s stories for this episode. Logan continues to insist that the fun of Westworld comes from indulging the Grand Theft Auto-style of play. He charges bandits with reckless abandon, smiles as he receives an upgraded pistol from a looted body, and even leaves William behind in search of a more exciting Easter Egg. Logan personifies the rules-lawyer, the min-maxing munchkin, and the jester all in one. One wonders if he would fit well in a tabletop role-playing game environment, but his comments are not without their brash charm. He insists that Dolores will grow to like him, and he’s already grown somewhat endearing to the audience.

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In the most audacious manner possible, we see Hector’s gang return to Sweetwater to the tune of the Habanera from Carmen. The connections between Maeve and Bizet’s gypsy heroine lay unsubtle and bare for the viewer to slaver over. Like Carmen before her, Maeve defies the conventions of her world and longs to escape the routine of her life, not just as a prostitute, but as a creation and slave of Delos. She sees without a doubt her role in the Matrix and dies uncaring in the arms of Hector. Despite his nihilistic worldview and the Man in Black’s warning, Hector has unwittingly proven that the hosts do have a larger purpose in this world. Yet we never do get the third number of the combination to the safe. The episode ends, and our chess pieces have found themselves in very different places from where we left them only 60 minutes ago.

While weaker than the previous three episodes, Dissonance Theory further builds the story and characters of Westworld, and it does so with a pacing and style rare in most modern television series. HBO leaves us with yet again more questions than answers, but guessing is half the fun. One only hopes the big W won’t turn out the same as its spiritual predecessor, Lost. While Lost entertained and enthralled us for years, it ended disappointingly and unfinished. Let us hope that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have learned from J.J. Abrams’s mistakes and at least some of their Wonderland puzzles have sound and logical solutions.

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And that’s about enough from me for one week (I honestly didn’t think I could write this much about one episode), but I hope you’ve enjoyed at least some of my thoughts on this fascinating show. If you feel inclined, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment or tweet at me @NCBurnham. I’m very excited about the future of Westworld, and may even feel inclined to write another review after episode five airs this Sunday. Until next time, may you find the egg-laying snakes you’re looking for.

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IGN’s Top 100 RPGs: A 6000-Hour Grind

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A few years ago, IGN published their list of the top 100 role-playing games. At the time, I liked it for one reason: Wizardry 8 made the list. Someone at the biggest mainstream gaming news site agreed with me that Wizardry 8 is great, and what’s more, it beat 26 other games on the list. Looking back at it now, there’s even more surprise entries than I realized at first. Dungeon Master. Pool of Radiance. The Bard’s Tale. Might & Magic VI. Clearly, at least one other person at IGN was into first-person dungeon crawlers as much as I am. More than that, though, the list as a whole is unrelenting in its worship of retro games. Plenty of good RPGs have come out in the last ten years, but only the best of them make this list. Because of this, it seems like an excellent snapshot of console and computer RPG history, both from Japanese and western developers.

Point being that if one were to play all the games on this list to completion, one would have a nigh unmatched understanding of the history, design, and stories of RPGs. The price of such an education? Well, aside from the monetary sacrifice, the endeavor would take approximately 6,000 hours to complete. I came up with that number after adding up the average time users claimed they took to complete each game on HowLongToBeat.com. The presence of massively multiplayer online games on the list made calculating that figure less exact, but I just assumed one would have to play any MMORPG for at least 100 hours to do a valid analysis. I allotted 1,000 hours to World of Warcraft, because that game is just too damn important. My personal feelings on WoW aside, I’ve put off exploring it for too long, and as a designer I need to have a deep knowledge of why WoW has remained the king of a genre for over a decade. Playing for 20 hours per week, it would take a person about six years to finish every game.

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But isn’t it possible to understand a game without playing it to completion yourself? On a base level, I’d agree with that, but I’d never presume to say I have comprehensive knowledge of Ulysses just because I read the CliffNotes or attended a lecture series. And in my experience, there’s just no substitute for actually playing through a game yourself. I tend to remember aspects of a game much better if I have spent personal gaming time with it, and there’s really no substitute for the greater context gained by observing every challenge, interaction, and design decision firsthand. For these reasons and the fact that I love RPGs more than any other genre, I want to take on this challenge. Furthermore, I want to document my progress through each game, noting what I observe and really taking the time to analyze the important facets of each title.

There are a number of decisions I’ll have to make about how to approach this monumental task, and I hope to address a lot of them with the first few entries. Inevitably, I’ll arrive at a standardized format for each game, and you and I will both know what to expect from each post. But until then, I’m just excited to think about how my thoughts and feelings about RPGs could change after six years of playing through the foundations of the genre. I’ve completed a fair number of games on the list already, of course, and I won’t be replaying each of those all the way through. However, some of them will likely warrant another go, and I will absolutely write up an analysis of each game. Honestly, I jump at any chance to replay Final Fantasy VI I can get.

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I hope you’ll come along with me for the journey in whatever capacity you’d like, and I can’t wait to see what I discover. Am I committing to a 20-hour play schedule for the next six years? God no, I have lots of other games to play and things to do, and I think I’d go crazy if I could only play RPGs from now until I’m 33. But I’ll be going at my own plodding, steady pace and posting every now and then.  I’ll be playing through each game in sequence as it appears on the list, which means that Nihon Falcom’s Ys Book I & II are up first. Wish me luck, and may there still be dragons on your hard drive. Til next time, farewell!

Twine Game: For Water

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This past week we got a new topic for our experimental games: “wetness.” I chose to make a Twine game about following the sounds of water. The story is based on a poem by Robert Frost called “Going for Water” that he included in A Boy’s Will, his first collection of poems from 1915. Like most Twine games, it’s very simple to play. Just download the folder with the game, readme, and postmortem files, run the html file in the browser of your choice (I suggest Google Chrome) and click the links to get to different pages. I also suggest wearing headphones since sound is a big part of the experience. Enjoy! And please let me know what you think if you do play the game.

Download For Water

My First Game: Pixel Perfect

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In my Experimental Gameplay class this semester, we’re expected to create a new game every other week inspired by a new topic each time. This task at first was incredibly daunting to me, since up until now I’ve only really dabbled a little with engines and coding. But I figured it’s the only way to force myself to actually learn the nitty-gritty of game design. And it’s also really exciting; I had a lot more fun creating my own small game this past week than I expected. Honestly, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. This week’s topic was pointillism, and I think the influences on my game from that art style should be fairly obvious to anyone that plays the game. It’s a short experience, but I hope it’s a fun one for you. More than that, I hope it encourages other people to get out there and make games themselves. I’ve read all of Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters for this class, and it’s really inspired me to take risks and be more creative and open-minded about the process of game creation. I recommend it to anyone who’s even remotely interested in game development or making games themselves. Let’s face it, the future of games as art will probably come more and more from small, indie developers and less from corporate publishers. Anyway, that’s enough rambling from me. You can find more of my thoughts in the postmortem and ReadMe file I’ve included with the game. Enjoy! And let me know what you think if you’re so inclined.

Download Pixel Perfect

Nick’s Top 10 Games of the Year for 2015

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Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted on here. And for the first time, I had a hard time coming up with games I played enough this year to feel good about putting them on my top ten list. But hey, that just shows how little time I actually spent playing games this year versus creating them, right? To be completely transparent, I chose to spend most of my play time with Hearthstone this year, but this probably isn’t the place for a four paragraph digression about the importance of the League of Explorers expansion. I didn’t play every big, triple-A title that came out (and aside from professional game journalists, who really has the time?), but I did play a lot of smaller gems. Maybe I’ll get around to the Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5, and StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void next year, but for now, I think I came up with a pretty good list anyway. I will say that I’ve included some light spoilers in this list but hopefully nothing that ruins your experience with any of the games below. And so without further ado, let’s get into my top ten games of 2015!

 

#10: Fallout 4

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I didn’t expect the latest Fallout to surprise me much, and it didn’t. But somehow Bethesda drew me into yet another couple dozen hours of their latest world simulator, and I probably never would have stopped playing if I didn’t have to eat and sleep. I don’t care for the Minecraft-like building and crafting system they’ve shoehorned into post-apocalyptic Boston, but simply wandering the wasteland in search of the next dungeon or the next pack of feral ghouls kept me absolutely enthralled for longer stretches of play time than I’d like to admit. In the end, the little touches and small details of Bethesda’s worlds continue to interest me the most, and they’ve proved enough for me, despite the lackluster plot and mostly boring selection of sidekicks that have pervaded Bethesda’s games since Oblivion. Nothing compels me more than spaces that tell stories on their own, and Fallout 4 happily has a high enough density of these to make rounding every hill and bend irresistible.

#9: Infinifactory

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I’m guessing that for most people Infinifactory lies under the radar, and I can’t imagine a bigger shame for a game that has received 98% positive reviews on Steam. But then, it and Zachtronics’s other puzzle games won’t suit the more traditional palettes of most gamers anyway. Where most games offer flashing rewards and exposés of the player’s every triumph, Infinifactory serves up accomplishment as its own reward. Above all, it demands constant evolution, experimentation, and learning from the player. If you can’t figure out how to connect three lanes of box spawners from one end of a map to another on conveyor belts of different lengths so they construct an oblong box configuration before hitting the final teleporter, and do so consistently, well, that’s on you, isn’t it? I enjoy the insane struggle of Infinifactory, though, because I’ve never felt more like a real engineer than when one of my Frankensteined contraptions of cubes and lasers actually delivers the intended result… albeit somewhat inefficiently.

#8: The Beginner’s Guide

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Davey Wreden’s latest work since The Stanley Parable doesn’t fit comfortably under most definitions of “video game,” but it does provoke thoughts and emotions and learning through play. So maybe Beginner’s Guide has found a way to evoke the very foundations of playing games by somehow bypassing our more traditional expectations. While Wreden gets a little too autobiographical for my taste and the more linear level progression feels antiquated compared to Stanley, few works of interactive fiction can rival The Beginner’s Guide’s investigation of the meaning of art and what we can possibly learn from an artist merely through ambitious yet unfinished creations. For indie designers especially, The Guide seems like a must-play, if only to evaluate just how much of themselves they’d like to hide in their future auteurist endeavors.

#7: Rocket League

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Rocket League stands as an infuriatingly simple game that nonetheless has taken both the eSports and casual couch scene by storm. I’ve heard several designer and journalist friends say the game makes them angry, because it seems like anyone could have made a game where cars wearing hats play soccer. But I think most indie developers don’t want to know the truth about themselves: that they don’t have any interest in making games based on pure adrenaline, physics, and fun. For myself, at least, when I first started the EAE program at the University of Utah, I just wanted to make the next small hit game with a heartwarming story and/or off the wall mechanics (e.g. Braid, Fez, Journey, or Gone Home). But I’ve learned over the course of the last two years that most designers should first build the foundations of games with strong core mechanics and only after putting those in place can story start to unfold. Rocket League will remain a constant reminder of that lesson for me, as I try again and again to pull off the perfect backflip aerial.

#6: Bloodborne

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A Souls game in every way but name, From Software’s Bloodborne greatly disappointed me after I finished my first and only playthrough. Not because I had any big problems with the game though; I simply wanted more. Maybe Dark Souls 1 and 2 have spoiled me with their larger than life worlds and larger variety of playstyles, but by comparison Bloodborne’s 35-hour adventure filled with Lovecraftian horrors, Gothic cathedrals, and nightmare fuel somehow feels paltry. But maybe that only shows how tight and efficient an experience Bloodborne actually is, and the fact that I left the game wanting really means that Bloodborne, unlike Dark Souls 2, struck a strong chord within me. After all, the cyclical nature of death and rebirth has always stood as the core of the Souls series, and I’ll never truly finish the game merely by watching the end credits.

#5: Super Mario Maker

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I spent a lot of 2015 searching for a great level editor with which to build and improve my level design skills. I’m absolutely atrocious at editing worlds within engines like Unity and Unreal, and simple, tile-based design tools have always made way more sense to me than having three 2-D views and one 3-D view all jammed together on the same screen. Safe to say, I anticipated Mario Maker more than any other game this year, and during the first month or two I spent with it I couldn’t put it down.

Unfortunately, even a seemingly amazing premise for a game or platform can have huge problems. For Mario Maker, those problems arose because of the community and Nintendo’s lack of a strong infrastructure. The lack of the ability to search for and classify levels with tags from day-one now feels like sacrilege for an idea that needed to push the growth and evolution of serious designers to the forefront. But week after week, the levels with the most stars (and thus the most visibility) have offered nothing but novelty, spectacle, music covers, or in the case of the worst offenders, the promise of more stars for the player.

However, I am very glad to see that the big “N” has continued to support Mario Maker with improvements to virtually every aspect of the game, and with the recent addition of the Super Mario Maker Bookmark website, I’m holding out hope that real creativity and innovation will be much easier to find. At the very least, for designers without much technical expertise, Mario Maker seems like an essential tool.

#4: Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

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I can’t easily defend why Call of Duty multiplayer means so much to me or why I’ve placed Black Ops this high on my list, and luckily (since this is my blog) I don’t have to. What I can say for sure, though, is that with Black Ops 3 Treyarch has returned to form and brought the franchise back from the brink of mediocrity. Entering a multiplayer match feels like going home to me, although mastering the new art of the jetpack has proved incredibly difficult. No longer can I rest assured that I’m providing solid overwatch merely by watching choke points and doors. Now the enemy could come from virtually every angle, and only those with the fastest trigger finger and surest accuracy will survive to put up that one big score streak that secures the match. Call of Duty remains an underdog’s game, and few games can rival the realization that yes, in the right lobby, with the right loadout, under the right conditions, you can be a one man army upon whom the outcome of the match solely rests. I revel in any chance to look down the barrel of my opponent and pop his head so fast I hear his cries of “n*****, what the f***” before my gun has even lowered back into firing position, and that feeling will likely propel me to attain Prestige Master and beyond.

#3: Pillars of Eternity

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I never played much Baldur’s Gate until the last couple years, and I’ve found them compelling and brutal. While they simulate 2nd Edition AD&D almost perfectly, they haven’t aged well enough for me to stay invested and push past the clunky interface on top of the crushing difficulty. I didn’t start playing D&D until 3.5 anyway, so the nostalgia factor doesn’t hit me as strongly as it probably does for grognards more weathered than myself. Every part of Obsidian’s attempt to recapture the magic of the old Black Isle games in Pillars of Eternity captivated me, though. The characters have charming dialogue, the world feels logical and truly alive, and the story achieves more in every chapter than most RPG’s do across their entire arc. The part your own character plays in the larger narrative, though, drew me in the most. Yes, you do play the “chosen one,” a role that has long ago left the realm of cliché and become standard practice, but you do so in a way that feels fresh and, most importantly, makes sense for the kind of story Obsidian has created. I strongly hope they get the chance to make a sequel, preferably with fully-voiced dialogue and another sidequest as satisfying as the one involving Raedric’s Hold.

#2: Soma

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Amnesia never really interested me that much, but Soma has one of the strongest science fiction narratives I’ve ever experienced, in a video game or otherwise. Thus, I’m a much bigger fan of Frictional Games now that I’ve played their deep-sea, post-apocalyptic, out-of-body allegory, and think they’ll continue to put out popular horror games that don’t just aim to terrify the player but also make the player think. For their next endeavor, though, I’d strongly suggest they ditch the parts where they force the player to sneak around patrolling AI’s and solve boring fetch puzzles. Right now, they serve only to pad out the game between the bits with substance and fuel the gratuitous screams of popular YouTubers. Hopefully, Frictional will either feel confident enough in their next story to do away with the sneaking sections completely or  rework the monsters into more interactive, interesting encounters.

#1: Undertale

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Some games make you rethink the potential of the entire medium. For me, Toby Fox and his small team have created such a game not only deserving of my personal Game of the Year award but also unending praise for taking a traditional JRPG framework and turning it on its head. To say that Undertale merely emulates Earthbound does the game a great disservice. Undertale perhaps mirrors Earthbound more closely than other games  but Fox’s story of love, friendship, and non-violence truly stands in a class of its own. Never has a game held its player more accountable for his or her every action than during Undertale’s tense yet comical bullet-hell combat sequences. I can’t recall the last time a game made me laugh out loud or want to cry as much as Undertale did on my first playthrough, and the humor stays consistently great throughout the short six-hour adventure. The soundtrack alone should compel anyone unfamiliar with the game to pay the measly $8 price and experience it for his or herself.

Not to say that Undertale doesn’t have flaws, but those flaws hardly mar an otherwise fantastic experience. If I had to make one gripe about the game, I would say that its message comes across too subtly at first, and most players likely won’t realize how their actions affect the world until they get a couple hours in. But I could see how that subtlety is essential to how Fox wants players to experience the game. Regardless, any modern gamer with even a passing interest in indie or narrative games should play Undertale. For me, it’s the best game I’ve played from 2015.

 

And That’s a Wrap!

If you’ve stuck with this post until the end, I want to congratulate and thank you. I know it’s long, but I hope you had some fun along the way and maybe want to pick up a new game or two from this list. As for next year, I’m looking forward to Dark Souls 3 and Persona 5 right now, and I’m hoping some more new, small, indie titles surprise me. Until next time, keep expanding your horizons! And if you want to keep up to date on what I’m doing, you can follow me on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Twitch, etc. Happy New Year and have a surprising 2016!

 

 

Review: Android: Netrunner

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Run Your ICE Off

 

I have played Magic: the Gathering for most of my life, so I’m excited to play any game created by one of my all-time idols, Richard Garfield, especially a game so different from Magic you would hardly believe it came from the mind of the same person. Despite Netrunner’s inherent differences from Magic (or maybe because of them), it did not gain much popularity when it originally released in 1996, although it did find a cult following. Fast forward to now, and the game has become an undoubted success thanks mostly to Fantasy Flight Games and their seemingly endlessly-repeatable Living Card Game formula. Since FFG put out Netrunner under their Android brand in 2012, they’ve released a core set, three cycles of Data Packs with more cards, three deluxe expansions with even more cards, and even a special draft variant line. And I really hope they continue to produce more cards with more expansions, because Netrunner deserves a place in the pantheon as one of the best trading card games ever.

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The game centers around an instantly recognizable struggle: one player plays the role of an evil, future corporation bent on controlling the world and seizing profits through any means necessary, while the other plays the runner (hacker) character who will do anything to bring the corporation down. This all takes place in a cyberpunk world based on the Android universe, a world littered with conspicuous characters with devious regimes. To win, the hacker must make “runs” on the corporation’s servers to attempt to find and steal the hidden Agendas. The corp’s hand, deck, discard pile, and other installed cards represent their servers, and the Agendas might be hidden in any one of them. The corporation must obstruct the runner’s efforts with Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, or ICE, by placing them in front of their servers and attempt to advance their own Agendas enough to score them before the runner finally breaks through. Runners can get around ICE with the help of Icebreakers – powerful programs that can disable the subroutines of ICE or destroy them outright.  A player wins after they score seven Agenda points, but both sides have a very hard road ahead of them full of tricks and deception.

Archer  parasite

Several factions exist as options for both the runner and the corporation, and all of them play very differently. My favorite corporation, Haas-Bioroid, develops androids for cheap labor and defends itself with some of the toughest and meanest ICE in the game, while the massive news conglomerate NBN relies on performing traces to find the runner and win through powerful combo pieces. If you want to play the runner, you might pick the idealistic Anarchs, who use viruses to whittle away the corp’s cards, or the scarily intelligent Shapers, with the unique power to change the very attributes of many card types. All the factions have well-defined personalities and playstyles, forcing you to think very carefully about the potential of your opponent during every game.

dataraven  HostileTakeover

While no two factions play the same, you do have the option of adopting a certain number of cards outside your own faction to fill in some of the gaps in your deck, and the deckbuilding aspect of Netrunner makes it extremely addicting. You can search tirelessly for the best ratio of ICE, Agendas, money-making cards, and other operations, but you will never find a strategy that beats every other deck all of the time. Fantasy Flight hasn’t created a perfectly balanced game, but they have come close enough that a player can win a game with any faction if they have a solid deck and a little bit of luck on their side. Luck plays a large part in decision-making, but reading your opponent perhaps makes the biggest difference between winning the game and running into a nasty trap disguised as an Agenda. The ability to bluff early and often in Netrunner further separates it from the likes of Magic and its imitators and makes the game so much more compelling than a typical CCG where two players simply run their big, bad monsters into each other over and over until someone dies. As a runner, you will never know exactly what the corporation has up their sleeve, and this makes the game very tense from turn one. Sometimes you will run on R&D (the corp’s deck) three times in one turn and hit nothing but junk, while other times you’ll call the corp’s bluff and make a great score at practically no cost.

Snare med_sneakdoor-beta-core

Android: Netrunner’s greatest aspects come from much older card games, aspects that Richard Garfield believes let you play the cards rather than having the cards play you, and the game succeeds extremely well in that regard. Similar to Magic, new players may think the game feels clunky and foreign at first, but all the cyberpunk terms and unusual mechanics solidify into a cohesive whole after just a handful of games. Fantasy Flight has really excelled at the presentation of the game as well, as the new art makes the 1996 game look dull by comparison, and you can identify what most cards do and where they belong at a glance. The core set works great on its own, but players will quickly want to spice up their decks with some of the many published Data Packs. For at least the foreseeable future, it seems that FFG plans on supporting Netrunner, an absolutely necessary act for a new card game that differs so greatly from everything else on the market. The asymmetric gameplay, the futuristic setting, the deckbuilding potential, and the great community make Netrunner a game that no one should pass up the chance to learn and love. If you want a game that feels totally new and will challenge your perceptions of what collectible card games can be, I highly encourage you to make a run on Netrunner; you might just discover some hidden agendas of your own.

Score: 9/10

runner

Review: Spelunky, PC edition

Spelunklogo

A Daily Plunge

Derek Yu’s Spelunky compels me more than most games in my Steam library, old and new. No matter what I feel like I should play, Spelunky always tempts me, lingering there on my games list like a pile of gems on a ledge just out of jumping range, or a shopkeeper with such good items I can’t resist whipping him in the face, even though my rashness will likely cause my demise. The game thrives on temptation. You may see the exit of a level clearly, but other treasures and rewards will attract your eye on other parts of the map. You will pursue those rewards at your own peril, and, many, many times, you will die horribly.

Spelunky consists of roughly 16 randomly-generated levels of a hostile cave system in a desert, and every single level has the potential to kill you, sending you right back to the beginning, no matter how many utility items you’ve managed to collect. The game has no mercy. It doesn’t pick sides, it doesn’t make friends, and it certainly doesn’t share secrets. After every four levels, you will descend into a different themed area, from the Mines to the Jungle to the Ice Caves to the Temple (and after that, just maybe, Hell, if you ever get good enough). Secret levels reside within many areas, and, often, accessing these levels will mean the difference between success and failure.

The City of Gold holds unimaginable riches and horrors...

The City of Gold holds unimaginable riches and horrors…

The game takes some of the core concepts of a rogue-like and transforms them into a 2-D platformer like none other. Unlike most of its brethren in the platformer genre, Spelunky does not encourage fast play. In fact, it practically forbids speedrunning of any kind through its sheer procedural design (which can make watching those players good enough to attempt speedrunning the game immensely exciting). To play Spelunky well takes patience, timing, foresight, knowledge, and a lot of luck. I’ve only beaten the game once at the time of this writing, and I only did it with the help of the jetpack, an item that you can’t rely on obtaining every time you play.

Why play a game with such unrelenting difficulty that it will make you curse arrow traps and snakes with such fury your roommates will think you’ve turned into some kind of deranged Indiana Jones? You play because you will get better. Slowly, surely, agonizingly, you will peel back the layers of Spelunky’s systems and discover you can beat it. Most of all, Spelunky will teach you to be patient or suffer the consequences. You will learn to test every vase just in case a spider or scorpion resides inside. You will learn to carry anything you can get your hands on at all times, be it a human skull, an empty chest, an arrow shaft, or even a friendly penguin,  because you won’t survive unless you can trip traps and dislodge enemies. Above all, you will learn conservation and adaptation. Without the items necessary to progress past a dangerous situation and the knowledge to apply those items, you might as well say goodbye to your would-be delver sprite forever and go play Braid.

The blue frog is just one of many terrible dangers you will face in the Jungle.

The blue frog is just one of many terrible dangers you will face in Spelunky.

Spelunky’s solid mechanics and endlessly addictive gameplay provide the foundation for an amazing, unique platformer, but its presentation will give you the best first impression and will ensure you keep coming back for more, even after you’ve suffered your first ten hours of agony and discouragement. Eirik Suhrke’s superb, upbeat soundtrack consists of 47 tracks for the background of your foolhardy endeavors, and, like with the level design, the game randomly selects a different track to play for each level, so you’ll likely never hear the same sequence of tracks twice. You won’t get tired of the adorable, cartoony characters and monsters either, even as they’re chewing away at your remaining hearts.

After you’ve mastered most aspects of the game and learned the lethal potential of most situations, you’ll start to notice those times when you feel you should have lived instead of died, and these moments may prove too frustrating for some players. Although Spelunky does have solid controls, they do not even come close to perfection. The spelunkers feel too floaty at times, and you will spend hours before you master boosting yourself up by jumping on enemies. Picking up items feels a little too clunky as well, especially when you want to grab one item in a pile. Overall, the path to success in Spelunky lies shrouded in obscurity for newcomers, nearly demanding adventurers head to the Wiki, despite the inclusion of a short tutorial. Furthermore, the final boss may feel all but unassailable for the first few encounters.

The eggplant is an obscure, fragile item with a very special secret.

The eggplant is an obscure, fragile item with a very special secret.

Still, players of most varieties should treasure their time with Spelunky as a truly one-of-a-kind experience. The game shines in its infinite replayability, its punishing yet rewarding difficulty curve, and its ability to inspire stories and videos. The Spelunky community remains strong and active, even two years after the original XBLA release. The cooperative and death match modes may feel tacked on, but they don’t detract from the overall experience. The Daily Challenge feature and competitive leaderboards more than make up for any kind of multiplayer shortcomings, as the joyous sense of achieving a very high score gets multiplied exponentially when you know you achieved it on the same layout that everyone else in the world did and your friends’s scores pale in comparison to yours. Not everyone will love the game, but everyone will have an exciting, original tale to tell after traversing its depths, and, because of this, Spelunky reigns as one of the best games on Steam, period.

The Good:
+Addictive, endless gameplay
+Great, whimsical presentation
+Great community features
+Unique take on the platformer genre with rogue-like elements

The Bad:
-Steep difficulty curve may drive some players away
-Somewhat loose controls and procedurally-generated levels can lead to unfair situations
-Some secrets and mechanics are difficult to discover without turning to walkthroughs
-Unpolished multiplayer

The Ugly:
Score: 9/10