Category Archives: Rant

Five Reasons why Catherine is my Biggest Disappointment of 2011

Recently, after much anticipation, I finally got around to playing Catherine, one of my most-anticipated games of 2011.

Boy… what a piss-off that was.

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains plot spoilers galore for Catherine.

Catherine banner

If you’re unaware, Catherine is a thematically ambitious game about relationships, (in)fidelity and becoming an adult. The game relates this mature tale through the classic gaming tradition of the block-pushing puzzle, which is kind of like gaming’s iambic pentameter. Or whatever.

Kind of like how the Legend of Zelda games are actually about Link, Catherine is about Vincent, a 30-something man struggling to navigate a rapidly-developing relationship with his longtime, pregnant girlfriend Katherine, who’s pressuring him to settle down and start a family. After a late night of drinking, Vincent has a one-night stand with 22-year old blonde bombshell Catherine, and his world is turned upside down when, every night after, he’s forced to endure a series of life-threatening nightmares meant to test and punish unfaithful men.

These nightmares force Vincent to navigate a tower of falling blocks, frantically sorting them into something climbable so as to reach the top and not fall to his death. See? Block-pushing. Escaping towards a goal, navigating a life-threatening situation, pressure and fear propelling Vincent ever upward — ohhh! It’s a metaphor! Games are doing that now! Continue reading


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Why I Quit Winter Voices Avalanche

I’m coming up on the end of Winter Voices: Avalanche, but I’ve decided that I’m done. I’m just done. “There is victory in defeat,” reads the only victory condition in this battle against my own grief — an obscure objective, but so cleverly simple in its true meaning: lose. Lose the fight to win. Easier said than done, or should I say, easier said than tolerated. Continue reading

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Rant: Story vs. Theme in Call of Duty

(Originally posted at Digital Hippos)

I only just finally got around to playing Call of Duty: Black Ops and I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. In the past I’ve been extremely hard on Modern Warfare 2, mostly for its poor level design, but also for its absurd story, wherein a supervillain tries to take over the world with his private military. Black Ops’ story of Soviet conspiracy, brainwashing and dissociative identity isn’t much more grounded, yet I was able to invest in it completely.

I think that the reason why Black Ops’ story worked so well for me was because it was completely upfront about exactly what its major theme was: Cold War-era paranoia.

Protagonist Alex Mason wakes up in a dark room, tied to a chair, being interrogated by the mysterious, distorted voice of a distant shadow. He’s being tortured in a vague way, hallucinating and suffering total-recall flashbacks while numbers count off in his head. Right off the bat, Treyarch establish a tone of exaggeration and fiction; this isn’t the typical obstacle-course tutorial commonplace in the franchise.

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Rant: In Medias Res

(Originally posted at Digital Hippos)

I want to talk more about something that I touched on in my blog entry about Fable III that was my first post here at DH: in medias res storytelling in games and how the device so rarely accomplishes what it’s meant to.

For those unfamiliar with the term, in medias res (Latin for “in the middle of things”) refers to a narrative device wherein a story begins in its second or third act (or partway into its first act).

Dragon Age 2 is probably the most recent example of a game using in medias res, as it picks up midway into the Hawke family’s story. Their peaceful time in the village of Lothering leading up to the Blight and the Darkspawn’s attack on the village all occur before the start of the game, which catches up with the Hawke family mid-flight during their escape.

This technique is employed often by game designers because it allows them to get right to the action. According to traditional three-act story structure, the first act consists of a calm, gradual introduction to the protagonist’s life and world. The introduction of conflict generally doesn’t occur until towards the end of the first act, when the protagonist’s happy little life is reversed.

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Player Agency and Relationships

I almost never pursue romance options in RPGs. At their worst, game romances are sensationalistic, meant to appeal to the 14-year old boys in the audience. At their best, they’re cliched, ceremonial, dry, and potentially disturbing. In either case, they say nothing about the human condition, the sole reason why we connect with stories about relationships at all.

I recently replayed Dragon Age: Origins and I ran into an identical problem in this, my second play through, that I ran into in my first: an unwanted love triangle.

Basically, by just treating my companions with respect and not acting like a dick to the world at large, I’ve somehow managed to get a few of them to fall in love with me (Leliana and Zevran in my first play through, plus Alistair in my second, which I guess makes this one a love square?).

One of the big problems for me is that I haven’t pursued any of these relationships; I’ve done no flirting; I’ve made no come-ons. Repeatedly sending signals that just about any adult would pick up on in real life (telling Leliana what a good friend she is; telling Alistair how much I appreciate our friendship) effectively just delays the inevitable; it nudges their approval meters up by a point or two, instead of the 10 or so if I’d said something flirty.

Over time, those points add up and none of the context or meaning of my dialogue with these characters makes a difference. They forget the things I’ve actually said and only remember the approval numbers derived from our conversations.

By just role-playing my avatar as a decent human being, I now have to deal with a whole mess of drama that comes off as arbitrary and immature. Because of reductive math — a number scale of how much someone likes me — I’m involved in an annoying situation that drags the game down and brings the pacing to a halt. Even though I’ve spent the entire game saying that Leliana’s religion is bullshit, she doesn’t seem to care, because the numbers still manage to add up in my favor.

I’m not convinced that stories about relationships work when left to player agency. And I don’t just mean romantic relationships; I mean relationships with other people, period. Typically, companion characters’ personal politics are black and white, their emotions are extreme and their lives are completely dependent on the player. They’re less like people and more like robots reacting to whatever stimuli the player creates through the choices he/she makes (actually, I guess that’s literally what they are in terms of the programming). They don’t even have relationships with each other, much less with the world around them. They’re just narrative devices; foils to help expand the story of your hero.

Basically, this all comes down to a storytelling vs. agency issue, and the conflict that can arise between the two. What makes for better storytelling might not be what the player wants. And that can be a problem.

A good relationship story, in my Dragon Age case, could have been the triangle of unrequited love I accidentally fostered. God knows, looking back at my earlier youth, I sympathize for every girl I knew who had to delicately balance my crush with our friendship. I didn’t make it easy for them. But, at the very least, those relationships had an arc to them, and we all got stories out of them (some better than others).

Unfortunately, the lack of a relationship between party members causes this potential story to break down. Their only interaction with each other is through me, referencing my other relationships. The story lacks conflict.

The story of a single, unrequited love could have been interesting. However, that particular story always conveniently ends when I say, “thanks, but not interested.” Allowing for player agency, the player can turn someone down and continue with the game, unburdened by the optional relationship side plot. In this case, the story lacks a proper end or even a middle. The end isn’t so much that my character rejects another character, but moreso that I, as the player, say “stop” and the game itself obliges by flipping a switch. The relationship plot goes from on to off without any further exploration.

Then there’s the story of any one of these relationships. Unfortunately, all have to allow for any number of variables based on my choices. And, of course, there’s that pesky math. My relationship with Leliana could have been a beautiful tragedy; something with a lot of potential that falls apart because I can’t accept her religion, of all things. POW! Now that hits on all cylinders; scorned lovers and religion … I dare you to invent juicier conflict.

But of course, the story never plays out that way. Our disagreements gain some negative points but our positive points outweigh those, so … it must be true love, right? After a lengthy talk about “us” and how great “we” are, the virtual avatars get down to the physical act of love, as awkwardly and unsatisfyingly as only masses of pixels can. And afterwards … well, that’s it. That’s the end of the story; the ultimate reward for the relationship side quest: sex. Because, as we all know, a relationship just stays frozen in time once sex gets involved (please note my sarcasm). That’s a lot of ceremony for such a weak payoff.

But what if the game didn’t have to account for as much player agency? What if there weren’t several options for relationships, but only one or two? And what if the player’s agency, like so much of the genuine roleplaying that’s so successful in recent BioWare releases, simply boiled down to conversation?

The relationship happens, as a core element of the plot, and your agency is in how you handle it: what you say; how you treat the other person; the effects of your other relationships; the effects of the romantic interest’s other relationships; the kind of person you choose to be and how it affects both you and your significant other? What if all the time, energy and resources that go in to fleshing out a lot of optional side plots went into writing this one story and its very limited number of branches?

And again, these ideas don’t just apply to romantic relationships.

I think the most I’ve gotten out of Dragon Age 2 so far has been my (well, Hawke’s) relationship with my brother, Carver. We’re family and we’re rivals. He looks up to me at the same time he grows jealous of me. He’ll defend both my life and my character to the bitter end, but never without a constant voice of doubt in the back of his head. We fight like dogs and stick together like a pack. We both, at least partially, blame each other for our sister’s death. Our strained relationship is a constant source of stress for our beleaguered mother; in fact, most of our fights revolve around her. That’s downright Oedipal.

Ultimately — and I know this isn’t a popular opinion among the “hardcore” crowd these days — I think story-based games, particularly RPGs, are going to need to become more linear if they want to tell an emotionally satisfying story. That’s not to say completely linear, like a first-person shooter, but player agency, or actual roleplaying, is going to need to come down to smaller, but more personal choices; choices that affect character development and provide the player with an opportunity to more thoroughly explore a game’s themes, rather than high-concept plot points that add nerd-coveted “replayability.”

To get off the RPG track (and, let’s face it, give poor BioWare a break), I think Heavy Rain is an example of a video game with an open-ended narrative driven by the player’s choices where the optional romance — and all of the relationships — work, largely because of a certain degree of linearity.

The relationship that develops between Shelby and Lauren always ends tragically, regardless of how the player chooses to handle the moments that lead to that tragic conclusion. Nevertheless, the impact of the relationship has greater meaning for me precisely because of how I handled those moments. And it would work just as well for anyone else who might pursue it differently. The majority of the plot is linear and scripted, but the meaning it has on the player is informed by the player’s small, but emotionally relevant choices.

Similarly, even though Madison feels completely superfluous to the overall plot of the game, and even though, in my play through of the game, I didn’t have Ethan pursue a relationship with her, I can see how that potential relationship sub-plot could be incredibly satisfying.

Madison isn’t simply reacting to the things Ethan says, or vice-versa; instead, their individual paths cross, they spend time together and, eventually, possibly come together (please don’t take that out of context). The relationship feels like it’s actually built on a foundation that continues to develop over the events of the game’s plot, as opposed to flipping a switch because some background math finally tipped the scale to one side. It’s spontaneous but not random, exactly the way a relationship is.

(Originally posted at

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Regrettable Gaming: Dragon Age and my Inner-Child

For the past week or so I’ve been struggling with the notion of buying Dragon Age: Origins in preparation for Dragon Age 2. You see, I already played and finished Origins on the PS3, but I’m getting Dragon Age 2 on the 360. This means that I will have no save to transfer from DA:O to DA2.


I also realize that this means putting down $50 for the “Ultimate Collection.” $50 for a game I already own?

Also unacceptable.

BioWare knows how to get me.

I spent the better part of an afternoon rationalizing all the pros and cons of buying the game or not. I never played the DLC included in the “Ultimate Collection,” so technically $20 of the price is going to new stuff. I also really want to replay the game, or more accurately, I want to play a western RPG set in a gritty “low” fantasy world — an itch that will be scratched in a few weeks by Dragon Age 2, regardless of my decision.

I know that importing a save won’t have any major impact on the events or characters of Dragon Age 2; the developers have stated that an imported save mostly fills in back story. … But it’s my back story, and I want it to turn out my way, regardless of how trivial it may be.

Also, (and let’s face it, this was the real issue), I had just missed out on a promising and exciting job interview, due to forces beyond my control. I wasn’t blind to the fact that, really, I wanted to buy this game to make myself feel better, because there are pretty much only three ways that I deal with disappointment or depression: drinking, smoking and buying shit I don’t need.

The solution to all of life's dilemmas

As the “Cons” column was filled out by my mind’s desperate pleas to reason, and the “Pros” became characterized by flawed rationalizations and petty desires, nothing really changed. I didn’t re-buy Dragon Age, but boy, I still really wanted to. By the time I worked up the nerve to just go buy it, the time had passed; it was getting late, I had other plans for the night, and I knew there was no point. I decided to sleep on it.

I woke up still wanting it.

I took my morning constitutional, as I do every morning, to the sounds of my favorite comedy podcasts. I listen to comedy podcasts when I exercise because, I find, laughing is a good way to start the day. Also, they distract me from the thought that I’m actually exercising — an otherwise miserable way to start the day. Specifically, WTF with Marc Maron has become a form of therapy for me. I find that Maron and I share a lot of the same neuroses, but because he’s had more experience wrestling them, he’s able to articulate them in ways I can’t.

So imagine my surprise when he and guest Paul F. Tompkins briefly discussed this very same issue: buying things you don’t need as remedy for depression. Boy, was that ever a coincidence to shake my spiritual nihilism (if only slightly).

Am I possessed by a Desire Demon?

Specifically, they discussed the process of learning to be your own parent to your inner child, to tell yourself “no” when you know better.

My inner-child got pushed in the mud, and wanted arbitrary material gain to make up for it. Even though I’m still shelling out my own money, I wanted the Universe to pay the debt it owed me for fucking up that interview. I am owed compensation because things didn’t go my way!

The real-life, adult me was saying, “No! No, you can’t have this game! No, you can’t always have your way! No, the world does not revolve around you!”

My inner-child was responding, “Fuck you! I can do what I want!”


So I just bought Dragon Age again — the $50 “Ultimate Collection” for the 360. But at least now I can characterize the particular kind of self destruction in which I’m engaging. And that, my friends, is a little thing I like to call … growth.

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Rant: It’s Boring at the Top

A few weeks ago I started playing Okami for the second time since its original release in September 2006. I did so on a  ‘new game plus’ using my original save file, complete with all the abilities, items, weapons, and money I had when I first finished the game.

After playing for a few hours I had a tragic and unwelcome realization: I was bored — with Okami; one of the most beloved, under-appreciated and beautiful games ever made.

For a while, I tried to wrap my head around how this could be and what it meant. Has the game aged so poorly? Was it never as good as I thought it was? Did I just buy into all of the hype, praise, and mass depression following its commercial failure? What does this mean for the upcoming sequel we never thought would be (Okamiden)?

Desperate for answers, I came to the erroneous conclusion that the game’s gorgeous art, which was so pretty on my old CRT TV, just didn’t look as good on my new HD set. I scoured the Internet, searching for a cheap used copy of the Wii port, as well as an answer to my question: is Okami worth buying twice?

As I poured over screenshots and footage of the Wii version, I realized that there was nothing wrong with the way the original looked on my new TV. My nostalgia, to which I am extremely susceptible, was blowing my memory of Okami’s visuals to hyperbolic heights. Meanwhile, the Wii version, with its super-saturated colors, only seemed to betray the muted, watercolor aesthetic of the original. Widescreen and brighter colors were not the answer.

So, I decided to give Okami another shot. Only this time, I started the game up from scratch; no massive health bar, super-powered weapons or pope’s ransom worth of cash. I was just a poor, weak deity, progressing through the game as originally intended. After replaying those first few hours, I struggled to put the controller back down and go to bed.

Without a complete health bar, I actually had a reason to avoid enemy attacks. Without upgraded, end-game weapons, I wasn’t one-shotting demons to death. Without an overflowing wallet, money had value again; without four full astral pouches to resurrect me upon death, food became important again. Most importantly, experience points had relevance again, as did all of the side-quests and optional tasks that reward them. Basically, the game had purpose; purpose it lacked when I started as the Shinto God Victorious, scoffing at the mortal world and its problems.

This experience led me to a somewhat convoluted conclusion: being powerful is boring. Gaining power, on the other hand, is exciting and rewarding.

You could say that this is a selfish concept. Okami casts you as a benevolent deity, but my only impetus for playing the game — for helping mortals, restoring nature and dispelling curses — isn’t benevolence, but personal gain. For every good deed, I’m rewarded with an explosion of colorful orbs that are vacuumed into my avatar, making me more powerful. Contrast this with the real world, where we’re often taught to believe that a good deed is its own reward.

But in the game world, the lack of reward is very limiting. Being powerful makes a game’s numerous and varied offerings redundant and unnecessary. Basically, I was bored with Okami on new game plus because I wasn’t being forced — or even encouraged — to explore everything the game has to offer. Being powerful just made me apathetic.

This is something that I’ve felt about games for as long as I’ve been playing them, but was never able to articulate until now. In RPGs (especially JRPGs), I usually burn out toward the end of the game. More often than not, this isn’t because the game is simply too long (although, certainly, that has been a factor at times), but rather because of my own sense of disillusionment with the game world and its mechanics. By the end of the game, when I have my full party, my airship, and my ultimate weapons, I long for the simplicity of the game’s first act.

Only now do I realize that I’m not being nostalgic, not simply conjuring fond memories of my hero’s humble origins, but rather I’m just bored with the fact that I’ve exhausted the game’s offerings. I don’t see a need to go face the final battle if I’m so powerful that my victory is certain. What do I have to gain?

I think the biggest example of this particular breed of apathy comes from Fallout 3. By the time I finished the main story and a fair amount of sidequests (but not nearly all), I was Wasteland Survivor Victorious. I had won. I don’t simply mean that I defeated the Enclave, created drinkable water, and saved a town or two; I was the ultimate lifeform in the the Capital Wasteland.

Oh. Hello, there.

Nothing could stop me; nothing could pose a challenge; progress and reward had no value to me. I could shoot, talk or sneak myself out of any situation and get whatever I wanted. No doors were closed to me, yet I saw no reason to pass through any of them. When I faced a problem, I went with whatever solution first presented itself to me, because whatever that solution was, I knew that I could do it (I could do anything). I had no reason to explore other paths or tactics. I left half of that world unexplored because there was simply no point in continuing. By becoming a god, I made my own existence pointless.

To contrast this idea, I think of two similarly contrasting examples: Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is an entire game about empowerment, and TerRover, which is very much about disempowerment.

TerRover is a PSN platformer and a perfect example of a game that forces the player to learn and utilize all of its mechanics. The titular rover is very finicky; his controls are very sensitive and very precise, and require a steep learning curve to use properly. Once you do understand the subtleties of the game’s control and physics, you’ll make it through with relatively few frustrations.

When I say “relatively,” however, I’m making a comparison to the frustrations you’ll experience before learning those controls. And they are many. TerRover’s learning curve is achieved through grueling application of fail-states. Every death is marked by a ghost and by the time I made it past most of that game’s areas, the screen was littered with so many of my little revenants that you’d think it was the site of a rover genocide. Only by punishing you does the game encourage you to explore other options, think creatively, and really use everything the game has to offer. You’re disempowered by your extreme fragility.

Contrasting this with Arkham Asylum, I don’t think any other game has done such an able job of putting me in the shoes of a total badass and making me really feel like I am that badass. And on top of that, the game continually rewards you with upgrades and gadgets, thereby making Batman even more of an unstoppable force. I could clear entire rooms of enemies without ever being seen; I could glide down to two standing guards, kick one as I land, then run away and double back to disarm and knock out the other one while he’s still trying to figure out what just happened. It was a pretty awesome feeling.

But I wasn’t Vigilante Victorious.

I think the big reason why that sense of empowerment worked in Arkham Asylum is because Arkham Asylum struck a fine balance. Batman himself was tempered by very particular weaknesses. Guns, for example, are bad news and you never want to get in front of them. The area where The Joker trapped the gargoyles with bombs disempowered the Dark Knight by limiting one of his most reliable tools, and one that was definitely abused by the player. Granted, it would have been more meaningful if those traps had been implemented more liberally in the game, but the concept was solid. You’re informed that you have a new limitation, you understand its significance because of how you’ve playing the game up until that point, and you have the means to overcome it. Arkham Asylum forced you to use everything at Batman’s disposal without punishing you with fail states or making the Bat so powerful that the player had no motivation to explore or employ creativity within the game.

I find it strange to hear myself say, “I want more difficult games.”  Once I became a college student (and an actual adult after that), my tolerance for difficult games plummeted dramatically.  It still has: I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with Dead Rising 2’s time limits, fail states, and almost rogue-like repetition and trial-and-error.

At the same time, disempowerment is a far more interesting and under-utilized mechanic in games.  Most games are just about gaining more experience, more money, better weapons, and becoming ever more and more a demigod.  Difficulty can be used more subtly than high- or low; it can be used to enrich the experience of a game and inform the statement made by that game.  It should be used as a motivator, not as a deterrent to progress; a driving force for the player, not a wall in the game’s pacing.

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