July 1, 2017

NieR: Automata and the Player-Character Dissonance



I was never really excited about NieR: Automata, not when it was first revealed, not when it was released, not even at any point playing it. But people I respect raved so much about the story that I had to check it out, and while I agree that it has interesting ideas, I... don't think they resulted in a good video game story. 

This video explains my disappointment with NieR: Automata, mostly through the prism of a single, early-game episode that I feel encapsulates Automata's approach to storytelling. However, be aware that there are clips from and allusions to later parts of the game as well, so be careful if you're worried about spoilers. 

There's also major spoilers for The Last of Us, and some really minor ones for Deus Ex (2000). 

Special thanks to reddit users Machinax and Aeratus for helping track down that one data log, and generally giving me a very pleasant first impression of the Deus Ex subreddit and reddit in general.

Also, I really apologize for the inconsistent voice-over quality. Never change your mic setup and then have no idea how to change it back in the middle of making a video, kids. 

Research Notes


Before I rushed to claim the term "Player-Character Dissonance" as my own, I tried sniffing around a bit. I did find a Pixel Scribe blog post discussing an unhyphenated "Player Character Dissonance", which is interesting, but seems unrelated; and a mention of an article discussing the hyphenated term in a blog post by The Astronauts. However, the link to the mentioned article is broken, and I have not managed to find any alternative source or archived version. A shame; the description makes it seem incredibly interesting.

April 19, 2017

I'd love to live in a world where Hollow Knight is "too familiar"

I quite like Rock Paper Shotgun and John Walker, but reading his Hollow Knight Impressions left me kinda puzzled. There's a lot I disagree with in the article, but the part that stood out the most to me was Walker's claim that the game is "too familiar". I feel like I either need to play the games Walker has been playing or smoke whatever he's been smoking, because, while it has its issues, I've played very few games of this level of quality.

Walker claims that Hollow Knight follows the Metroidvania formula too closely, and that it makes variations in the wrong places. Keeping in mind that innovation is often nothing but snake oil, these changes are exactly what make Hollow Knight stand out from other Metroidvanias. The need to consider abilities part of a loadout instead of a fixed addition to your arsenal, the tight, methodical combat, the way the game encourages exploration and finding your own path through the world - those are the things that make Hollow Knight very much a game of its own.

In fact, I feel like if Hollow Knight wasn't in 2D, far more people would recognize that it has more to do with - and please hear me out, because I know how terrible what I'm going to say is - Bloodborne. Not in terms of mechanics, but definitely in terms of lore and atmosphere. In fact, almost all the top comments on the article make the comparison to - sigh - Dark Souls. So it's not even me saying it, so I'm not a hack games writer or anything.

Not that the fact that something gets compared to Dark Souls proves anything. But in this case, if - and only if - we put mechanics aside, the comparison is apt.
So Walker decides that Hollow Knight belongs exclusively in a specific genre, finds its adherence to this restricted genre too strict, and then finds its variations lacking. To substantiate this, he compares the game to two other games, of which the two that I've played - Owlboy and Axiom Verge - are nothing like it in terms of mechanics or world-building (and are, in addition, quite dull). The whole critical approach just seems bizzare and misguided.

Having just finished Hollow Knight with 50 hours into it, I'll definitely say that it has its problems. Fast travel is minimal and awkward, so there's a lot of backtracking, and although this is more of a problem with me than the game, there are weird things to its action's rhythm that I never quite got used to. For example, sometimes using a special ability will allow you to move left and right, but not jump, which is a very weird and awkward limitation that nine out of ten times will make you crash straight into an enemy or a pit full of spikes.

Still, I'd say this is one of the finer games I've played in a while, perhaps the best Metroidvania I've played since the game that got that label started, Symphony of the Night.
The first thing you realize about Hollow Knight when you start playing is that oh my god, it actually looks like that. People who follow games are used to trailers looking much better than the end product, to the point where a lot of people will look at a game like Cuphead cynically, not believing the devs can actually deliver on the unique art style shown in promotional material. But Hollow Knight delivers, and my god is it amazing. It's like playing an animated movie of the highest quality, and as fashionable as it might be to say that graphics don't matter, I think art style and aesthetics can be as important a part of a game as anything else. Hollow Knight would still be a great game if it were ugly, but the way it looks adds so much.

The second thing you realize, after the first few bosses, is that this game is crushingly hard, mostly because it relies on a completely different skill set than the more obvious examples of challenging games. There are no combos, stamina or counters, and enemies rarely get stun-locked. Instead, surviving boss fights depends more on choosing the right loadout and carefully platforming around obstacles and attacks. It really takes the typical SotN combat to new places, and it's pretty glorious.

Trial of the Fool is still nonsense, though.

I'm not reviewing Hollow Knight - it was a total impulse buy, mostly due to it being an indie game and looking absolutely beautiful. But I felt like I had to write about it, because no one is talking about this game and that, to me, is downright criminal. Having done that, I'm now looking forward to reading Holly Jane Amareta's official Steam Shovelers review - you know, the hip new site everyone's talking about and where all the writers are really sexy.

April 15, 2017

Blog Underactivity / NieR: Automata, Empathy and the Player-Character Dissonance / Neil Druckmann Missing the Point of Uncharted Criticism

A Personal Note

This blog isn't in much use anymore. I post my songs and videos here, but not much else. The reason is that for the past few months, I've been writing for the very cool new site Steam Shovelers, and that's a .cool domain so you can't argue that it is cool. With my writing needs being mostly met by my reviews there, and my preference to talk about other topics in video form, there may not be a lot to see here. However, before making my next video, I feel like I need to organize my thoughts a bit, and doing a blog post seems as good a way to do this as any other. So there you go.



This section will begin spoiler-free, but after a certain clearly-marked point, spoilers begin. Tread carefully.

I'm a bit late to the party with NieR: Automata, and that might be my biggest problem with it. When I was done with the game - yes, the proper way - all I could think was: is that it? Is this jumbled mess of science-fiction cliches and half-baked gameplay ideas really what people have been raving about? Is this going to be another one of those times where I feel like an absolute maniac for being left very cold by a game a lot of people say is one of the most important video games of all times?

Well, yes and no. For one thing, experience shows that all this hyperbole needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Everyone was raving about BioShock Infinite back in the day, but once hype cooled off, people noticed that the plot makes no sense and that combat was kind of a mess. (*psst* I still kinda like it!

But more importantly, there are things to like about Automata that make me understand the love for it a bit more. Movement is clunky and combat gets repetitive, but I've seen worse, and while I can take or leave the main characters, the machines themselves are undeniably cute and likable. Yoko Taro built a beautiful, fascinating world. 

It's just that he chose to ask the most banal questions about it, and give the most predictable answers. 

SPOILERS START HERE
Does this unit have a soul? Can you offer me proof of your existence? War, what is it good for? 

We've heard it all before, and NieR: Automata does nothing new to justify hearing it again. Even if you ignore the more explicit plot and focus on the subtext, just the last couple of years have seen a slew of games that made brilliant use of meta-plot and fourth-wall breaks, like Undertale, Pony Island and IMSCAREDAutomata doesn't so much build on their insights as it makes poor copies of them, which I guess is at least thematically consistent with the poor copies its machines have made of human societies and customs.

That's what brings us to the one theme that Automata gets absolutely right: empathy. Because, after all, as the game asks explicitly at one point: why would these machines try to copy humanity so much even though in-game history shows it to have been a failure? 

Part of the answer lies in the best part of the game's plot, the main story quest The Machine Surge. Upon reaching the surface and contacting the Android resistance, protagonists 2B and 9S are ordered to commit what is in practice an act of genocide by destroying all the machines in the desert. The machines fight back, which 9S uses as a rationale to keep attacking them: 

"If they wanted help, why would they be attacking us?"
(Heard that one before!)

The machines then attempt to evoke empathy by voicing their feelings of fear and pain. When that fails, they flee, scrambling for a possible way to appease their attackers. They try anything from appealing to their conscience:

"You. Not. People."

To idle chat:

"Nice. Weather. Today."

When all this fails, the machines realize that they cannot defeat the Androids, nor convince to halt their attack, nor escape: 

"This cannot continue!"

And so, they fuse together to give birth to Adam - a machine's idea of what a human looks like, based on the closest living example they've ever witnessed, namely, the Androids.



It may seem like Adam was created as a weapon. He certainly has strong offensive capabilities. But . rather than attack, the first thing he does is ask you why you are attacking him

"An... droids... why... fight?"

His next step is to learn how to handle your aggression:

"Sword... dodge... projectile... deflect..."
(My god, the writing in this game)

And only then does he attack. 

And then Eve climbs out of his chest, because Bible reference, get it?

Adam eventually becomes hate incarnate, believing that the essence of humanity is conflict. But this isn't a perspective that's hard-wired into him. It's a result of the fact that the sum total of his experience with anything approaching a human is getting cut, shot and stabbed by 2B and 9S, and his resulting beliefs are later affirmed by a biased reading of human history.

The machines didn't make Adam to be a weapon - they made him because they thought that if the Androids saw someone more like them, they would be less inclined to attack. It's the next logical step after the orchestrated charade of family life that we witness when the protagonists first step down into the sand pit where Adam is eventually created: the machines already know that YoRHa is coming and will not yield, and in their despair, hope that if they're easier for the Androids to identify with, they might be spared.

But that never happens. Years of indoctrination have made 2B and 9S completely incapable of empathizing with the machines, an intentional ironic contradiction to YoRHa's glorification of humanity. The whole scenario is a brilliant commentary on the role empathy plays in our lives and how it is upended by prejudice and incitement.

It's also a perfect illustration of just how badly NieR: Automata's story fails as a video game plot.


You see, as 2B and 9S were massacring the desert machines, I could tell the game wanted me to feel the Androids' inner conflict between their sense of duty and the undeniable fact that these machines were saying and doing things that are uncharacteristic for unthinking murder bots. But all I could think was: why am I playing this game? I don't want to murder these machines that are begging for their lives. I wouldn't do it in real life, no matter how badly I was incited against someone, and I know this because I was faced with similar choices in the past. NieR: Automata told me all about why YoRHa wanted these machines dead, but at no point did it explain why I should want to aid them. 

There's a very important difference between character motivation in a movie or TV series and that of a character in a game: in both cases, there may be instances where someone has to play a character with whose motivation they don't identify. Actors who play villains generally don't want to nuke New York City or decapitate Gwyneth Paltrow - we hope - but they understand that their portrayal is vital to make the movie work. J. K. Simmons probably wouldn't be too thrilled about his role as Schillinger if the point of Oz was that being a Neo-Nazi is great. It's for the benefit of the story, and that's all the motivation an actor needs.

Also, I hear the money's pretty good.

In video games, players play a role, but they do so for their own benefit. Unless you're a YouTuber - in which case you should be ashamed of yourself anyway - chances are you're not playing a game thinking "wow, this would be really great for someone else to watch". You're doing it for your own benefit.

That doesn't mean, as some people claim, that games have to always be fun or entertaining. I'd be hard pressed to say I found 1979 Revolution: Black Friday or Detention fun, as much as I loved them. Nor is it necessary for a game to have a protagonist you could identify with: Yakuza 0, my favorite game this year so far, has you play as a couple of thugs who, personable as they might be at times, would do anything for money and power. But, to paraphrase Jim Sterling, you can't sell something on the lack of content. If a game isn't entertaining, and if you don't identify with its protagonist, there has to be some other reason for you to want to play, to enable the main characters' behavior.


Let's take a look at another critically-acclaimed game, to the point of utter hyperbole: The Last of Us. To keep spoilers at a minimum, the last part of the game faces you with an unambiguous fact: in order to cure humanity from the Cordyceps infection, a certain character, let's call them Character A, must be sacrificed. Character A agrees to sacrifice their life, and while this is a painful sacrifice, everyone understands it must be made - everyone except the character you play at that point, let's call them Character B. Unwilling to accept this sacrifice, Character B goes on a rampage, slaughtering many people who only have humanity's best interest in mind to save Character A.

It's a great character moment, but it's handled extremely poorly as game plot. No matter how closely you identify with either character, and no matter how many of us would do the same in that situation, there's no way you could justify these actions - and if you can, you should probably check yourself. What possible motivation could a player have to go through with this maniacal, selfish, murderous plan except to get to see the ending credits?

NieR: Automata has the benefit of being a much better game than The Last of Us, inferior voice-acting notwithstanding. But when it comes right down to it, it fails in the same way.

I expect to have a video covering these points, and maybe a few others, in the next few weeks. Chapter Select notwithstanding, getting all the footage I need this time might take a while. But I think it's a really important and under-explored aspect of the way we tell stories in games.

For now, here are a couple of links to articles that I've dug up during some preparatory research:

Pixel Scribe on Player-Character Dissonance in Dragon Age: Inquisition
The Astronauts on Empathy and Game Design


I really liked Uncharted 4, probably for the same reasons that longtime fans of the series apparently did not. It focuses less on wanton murder and more on making likable characters, establishing the relationships between them, and basing climbing sections less on trial-and-error nonsense and more on getting a feel for how the game's environment functions.

That's why I'm kinda disappointed at Neil Druckmann's response to a question in a Rolling Stone interview about the violence, or rather, the "ludonarrative dissonance" in the Uncharted games:

"...we don't buy into it. I've been trying to dissect it. Why is it that Uncharted triggers this argument, when Indiana Jones doesn't? Is it the number? It can't be just the number, because Indiana Jones kills more people than a normal person does. A normal person kills zero people. And Indiana Jones kills a dozen, at least, over the course of several movies. What about Star Wars? Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, are they some sort of serial killers? They laugh off having killed some stormtroopers. And in The Force Awakens, we see that a stormtrooper can actually repent for the person he is and come around, and there are actually real people under those helmets."

The only examples Druckmann can think of to justify Nathan Drake killing dozens of people to get some treasure are movies where protagonists kill either actual Nazis are very transparent metaphors for them. Nathan Drake isn't killing fascist soldiers to save humanity from fascism; he's killing mercenaries and guards to dig up treasure, a task at which he constantly seems to fail.

Again, this is a case where the character has a much clearer motivation than the people playing the game. It's very indicative of this problem in game writing that the really difficult questions about violence, as well as block-pushing puzzles, came from a publication that traditionally doesn't focus too much attention on video games.

March 14, 2017

How to Not Prove that Pi = 4

Today is March 14, which, due to 3.14 being the most common approximation for the most well-known mathematical constant, is celebrated as Pi Day. Some mathematicians frown upon that, since they know that Pi isn't actually equal to 3.14 and think that impresses someone, but any excuse to write about math is fine by me.

So before we get into anything else, we need to ask - what is Pi? A lot of people know that it's the ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle, but who's to say that ratio is the same for all circles? You can measure some circles and see that the ratio is pretty much the same, but who says that it's exactly the same? Who says we didn't just get lucky and pick a few circles that happen to have that ratio?

In other words, we want to prove that Pi is well-defined - that the definition we gave of Pi as said ratio actually means something.

Well, there's good news and bad news on that front. The good news is that there's a basic, intuitive proof that doesn't require a whole lot of mathematical background to understand. The idea is as follows:

Image shamelessly pilfered from ProofWiki

  1. Position two circle so that they're centered at the same point, and in particular, the one with the smaller radius lies inside the one with the larger radius. 
  2. Choose some integer, n, which is equal to at least 3, and divide both circles to n equal parts, like slices of pizza, i.e. by drawing straight lines from the center to the perimeter of the outer circle. 
  3. Now, for each circle, connect each points where the straight lines from step 2 intersect it with its neighbor. 
  4. We now have two families of triangles, one for each circle. The sides of each triangle are the length of the corresponding circle's radius, and the angle between the sides is the same for all triangles - namely, it is equal to 360 degrees divided by n, the number of triangles we divided our circles into. 
  5. In particular, each small triangle is contained in a large triangle such that the ratio of the sides is the ratio of the smaller radius to the larger radius, and the angle between these sides is equal. Laws of triangle similarity dictate that the ratio of the "bases" - the third edge formed by connecting two points on the perimeter of the circle - is also the ratio of the smaller radius to the larger radius.
  6. Now the magic comes in: as you can clearly see from the image up there, the larger n is, the more the sum of the bases of the triangles approach the circumference of the circle they're contained in. But we've seen that the bases of the triangles have the same length ratio as the radii, and since this is true for every n, in particular, the ratio of circumferences thus approximated must also be the ratio of the radii.
  7. Step 6 shows us that, if we mark the circumference of the smaller circle by $P_1$ and its radius by $R_1$, and do the same with index 2 for the larger circle, we have $$\frac{P_1}{P_2}=\frac{R_1}{R_2}$$ which is the same as saying $$\frac{P_1}{2R_1}=\frac{P_2}{2R_2}$$ thus showing that, indeed, the ratio between circumference and diameter is constant. 
Those were the good news. The bad news is that, alas, our approach can be used to render all of mathematics meaningless, for as the follow image shows, it can be used to prove that Pi is not roughly 3.14 but is, in fact, 4:


Which is a shame. I liked math. It's too bad that it has to Go Away Forever.

Well, as you can guess, the problem isn't so much with math as with our reasoning. Like I said, our approach can be used to show that Pi equals 4, but that just shows that our approach is wrong. Specifically, the issue lies in step 6, where we said that the lines formed by the bases of our triangles approach the perimeters of the circles and that therefore their lengths must also be the same. This reasoning is dead wrong, even if our conclusion was correct. Actually, math is full of examples of correct results one can reach with bad reasoning - my favorite is $$\require{cancel} \frac{64}{16}=\frac{\bcancel{6}4}{1\bcancel{6}}=4$$ Don't get me wrong - the approach of calculating a curve's length by approximating its length with a sum of lengths of straight lines that becomes ever-closer can be used correctly. In fact, it's pretty much what we're going to do. But as we can see, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and to understand when it can actually work, we need to be a bit more rigorous. In fact, this is probably the simplest example I know of showing just how important mathematical rigor is.

So how do we show that Pi is well-defined? For this, just like with all good things in life, we're going to use Calculus - specifically, line integrals. The theory of integration is more than I can cover in a single blog post, but the idea is the same - calculate areas, lengths of curves or anything else by making these calculations for more basic shapes, and show that these basic shapes can be used to approximate the complex ones. The key is in the last step, though - understanding which approximations work and which don't, and most importantly, why. If I've made that point in this post, then my work here is done.

Just to be cool, though, let's show our calculus proof in full. We will calculate the length of half the perimeter of a circle with radius $R$ using the following parameterization: $$x(t) = t, y(t) = \sqrt{R^2-t^2}, -R \le t \le R$$ Why not use the more standard parametrization using cosine and sine? I'll leave that for you to answer, but think about how you would go about justifying each step of the following calculation using that parametrization.

Onwards, then. Let's use $P$ to denote the circumference of the circle. The integral we must now calculate is $$\int _{-R} ^{R} \sqrt{x'(t)^2+y'(t)^2}dt$$ which, after some calculations, is shown to be $$R \cdot \int _{-R} ^{R} \frac{1}{\sqrt{R^2-t^2}}dt$$ Now here comes the real magic. In this integral, substitute $v = \frac{t}{R}$. This gives us the integral $$R \cdot \int _{-1} ^{1} \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-v^2}}dv$$ But with $P$ as above, we have $$\frac{P}{2}=R \cdot \int _{-1} ^{1} \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-v^2}}dv$$ or equivalently $$\frac{P}{2R}= \int _{-1} ^{1} \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-v^2}}dv$$ Now check out this beauty! On the left hand side we have our coveted ratio, but on the right we have a definite integral - a number - which more importantly than anything else, does not depend on $R$, It's also kinda important that the function we're integrating is continuous and bounded over the closed interval of integration, which means that our integral exists.

Some of you may be tempted to say the primitive function here is $arcsin(v)$ and conclude that the left-hand side is indeed equal to $\pi$. But that would be naughty, as we have only now shown that Pi is well-defined, and that makes any reasoning in that direction fishy. But the important part is that the right-hand side is a constant, and from here, all the wonders of geometry, trigonometry and much of calculus are ours for the taking.

January 20, 2017

New Song - Terra's Theme (Final Fantasy VI cover)

Final Fantasy VI is widely claimed to be the best game in the series, even though everyone knows it's third after VII and IV. But all the same, it's a fantastic game, that to my great shame, I never actually beat. I got to that part - you know the one I mean if you played the game - and wanted to do everything you're supposed to do at that point, but real life intervened and it just fell by the wayside. I'm working on a full playthrough as we speak, I promise!

VI isn't just a fantastic game but, like every game scored by Nobuo Uematsu, has an amazing soundtrack. Terra's Theme in particular has always stood out to me as one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard, and I've been playing a half-baked acoustic version of it I've improvised one day on and off for years now. Since I've been having some technical issues preventing me from working on full-blown electric releases, this felt like a great way to keep working on music while also paying tribute to a game and a soundtrack beloved by myself and many others. I've worked on it for quite a bit, and I ended up very happy with the arrangement I gave it. Hope you feel the same way!

Of course, as always, I would appreciate it if you spread the word.

December 31, 2016

The Psycho Mantis Video Game Awards 2016

Keeping that Glass Half-Full With Video Games

Honestly, I'm already sick of people saying 2016 was a terrible year, but my god was 2016 a terrible year. Disasters seemed to keep piling on in both the personal and political realms. Artistic icons passed away, revolutions were drowned in blood, and tragedies just kept piling on for me and the people I care most about.

It's with some bitter irony, then, that I note just how amazing this year was for video games. I thought 2015 was good, but man if 2016 didn't blow it out of the water. Whether indie or AAA, action or story driven, PC or console, game developers put out some of their best work this year.

Of course, none of this makes up for the terrible things that happened. No amount of amazing video games is worth one Aleppo. But if there's anything to take from this year, it's the power of art and entertainment to help people deal with the hardest of times, and I hope this post shows that video games are continuing to prove their place as the foremost medium in both fields.

Now we just need to get rid of all of that human misery and make sure that everyone can enjoy them.

For the Record: No Fee-To-Pay

You Mei notice that one game that can be found in many, many GOTY lists is missing here. It's a game that has been a Bastion of enjoyment for me, having played it for around 300 hours now, and I doubt I'll stop anytime soon. When I played its open beta, I couldn't wait to get my Hanzo on it, and I've been enjoying its biZarya charms ever since it hit the Roadhog.

It's also a full priced game that had the gall to include microtransactions, and what's more, only allowing you to buy random lootboxes that are mostly filled with Junkrat. It's a real Reaper-off, and although it's not a pay-to-Winston system, it's scummy all the same. 

This year we are faced with the Sombra realization that ever more scummy business practices are finding their way into the premium games market. It's a fact that has affected me on both a personal and professional level. You may find it Anal, or argue that I'm going too Pharah. Still, as Reinhardt as it is, and as much as I'm Torbjörn about this decision, I can't just be Zenyatta and let it go. This is how industries Widow and die. And so, I cannot consider this game - at whose identitiy I will only very, very subtly hint - for GOTY.

Some will say this is hypocritical, since other games with DLC and season passes are featured here. However, there's no Symmetra between games with significant, well-defined expansions and those with endless, random microtransactions.

I am under no IlLucion that this will change anything in the near future, and I know it makes me look like a bit of a D.Va, but I believe everyone needs to follow their McCreed, and so, there can be no Mercy in the matter.

Of course, the same is true for any other game with similar business practices. This is an issue that may have Mankind Divided, but I have no doubt where I stand.

Genji.

The Psycho Mantis "Reckless Person" Award For Worst Video Game, 2016


About a month ago, Steam Spy revealed that almost 40% of all Steam games came out this year. With the platform increasingly filled with utter garbage made by people who could only jokingly be referred to as "developers", it might seem questionable that any game with a decent budget or effort put into it could be the worst game released this year. However, reception is always relative to expectation, and there is very little to be gained from critiquing Steam's dumpster fires.

With that in mind, the worst video games released in 2016 are...

Street Fighter V

I'm not one to yell "you killed my childhood" at someone who made a bad movie or game. As far as I'm concerned, if your childhood is the sum total of the entertainment you consumed growing up, not much is lost by it being taken away. Still, Street Fighter has always had an important place in my heart. My grandmother used to watch me play SFII - even though she didn't like that it was violent and preferred it when we played Mario - and one day we even sat down to write what happens in each character's ending. That note still hangs on her fridge, last time I checked.

And so, when SFV came out, my good judgement and apprehension towards AAA gaming went out the window, and I ended up getting it on launch day. Imagine my surprise when I found out the game's story mode consisted of three incredibly easy fights for each character, and that it took upwards of 6 minutes to find a game online. Since launch, an extended story mode came out, but it's as boring as the original, and while online matches don't take quite as long to find, it's still well beyond what should be acceptable for a fighting game. 

Laughably touted as a Street Fighter for fighting game pros, Street Fighter V is barren and dim-witted, a stain on what is still my favorite fighting game franchise.

Shadwen

On paper, Shadwen sounds great. It's a stealth game where, just like in SUPERHOT, time only moves when you do (although in Shadwen, time completely stops instead of just passing very slowly), set in a world that looks and feels a lot like that of the first Witcher game. 

Sadly, all Shadwen does is prove once more that good ideas don't mean much on their own. The game constantly crashes, platforming (which this game has for some reason) is awkward and finicky, and the guards are practically blind, making stealth trivial and dissatisfying. 

Despite my best efforts, the game broke me pretty early on, when I was presented with a choice on whether to kill a guard or sneak past him. Or I would be, if a bug didn't force me to take a lethal approach either way. Even when, digging through the game's Steam forums, I found an exploit that allowed me to sneak by, I was still accused in the following cutscene of killing the guard. When a game gives you a choice and then ignores completely the one you took, what's the point?

I still say Shadwen's concept has a lot of promise. Here's hoping someone manages to capitalize on it in the future.

République

Never before has my utter contempt for a game been so accurately captured by a couple of screenshots.

Bombshell

Contrary to what this list might have you believe, I rarely go out seeking bad games. I take no joy in playing them. All they is make me bored and irritated. If I do seem gleeful when taking them down, it's only because it's the only thing I can gain from my time with them. But Bombshell really looked like one of those rare so-bad-it's-good games, a game where you can really enjoy the awfulness.

Sadly, no. If you think Bombshell can give you over-the-top action-movie stupidity, you're in for a disappointment. If anything, Bombshell is weirdly understated, with a distinct lack of audio-visual feedback that makes all the shooting and explosions feel empty and complete lacking in impact. One turret section - because apparently the year is 2009 - was so quiet that I started wondering if I'm being pranked.

When it's not trying to kill by being dull in look and feel, Bombshell tries to torture you with its humor. A cursory look at anything I've ever written will make it very clear that I have an idiot's sense of humor, and even I found Bombshell's jokes to be assaults on the very idea of humor. There actually a weapon in this game called a Maxigun - get it? Because Bombshell is a woman? For fuck's sake.

Back In 1995

Almost forgot about this one, and I haven o idea how I could! The glitches, the awful writing, the poo monsters - everything about Back In 1995 screams style over substance, trying to capture in painstaking detail the looks and controls of old survival horror games - up to and including an option to turn on CRT effect, no thank you - with no understanding of what made them great. As I wrote about its conscious attitude to some of its mechanics as "gimmicks" at the time, 

"...that could be said about practically anything in Back In 1995: it's all a gimmick. Resident Evil had turret controls because the first PlayStation didn't have dual analog sticks. Silent Hill had fog because the PlayStation wasn't powerful enough to render the large environments Team Silent wanted to use. Why does Back In 1995 do anything that it does? Just because. Just to make you think of the old horror games you liked, in the hopes that maybe you'd like it by-proxy."

I didn't, and that seems to be general consensus. With a new Resident Evil touted as a return to the series' survival-horror roots and at least one Silent Hill-throwback game planned for release in 2017, let's hope the future is a bit kinder to classic survival horror.

Worst of the Year - Knee Deep + Virginia

There are game developers who borrow heavily from film, using cinematic techniques to enhance their writing and visuals. Then there are developers who prefer to tell stories in a way that is more uniquely available to video games, including especially the metagame narratives we've seen more and more of following the success of Undertale and Pony Island. These two trends in video-game storytelling both have their merits, and the differences and interplay between them deserve a more thorough analysis than they have been given so far.

One category of games that get entirely too much attention, though, is that of games that try very hard to convince that they are something else. The foremost representatives of this category I've come across this year are Knee Deep and Virginia, the former trying to present itself as a play, the latter as a movie. Lucky for them, they are, in fact, video games; otherwise, they would be shred to pieces by any self-respecting critic in the media they try to ape.


Knee Deep has you play a reporter, and the interactivity reduces to the way you decide to write your stories. You can be "Cautious", "Edgy", or "Inflammatory", but no matter what you choose, the result will be some cringe-worthy blocks of text or dialogue. Theater prides itself on wit and depth, two qualities sorely missing from Knee Deep.

Virginia is so overflowing with pretentiousness that it actually replaces the Play Game option from the main menu with Play Feature. It is so desperate to be like a movie that it recommends that you play at 30 frames per second, as if that's going to make its terrible character models or barren environments look any better. It still gives you an aiming reticle, though, because video games.

The problem with Knee Deep and Virginia isn't in technical aptitude, although there's some real uncanny-valley stuff going on in both games. The problem is their basic design philosophy, which seems to argue that in order for video games to grow as a medium, they need to become something else. They represent a sinister trend in game design, with a massive cognitive dissonance between the way they view themselves and what they end up achieving. 

Fortunately, I believe these to be the death pangs of that trend. It's been a while since anyone went looking for gaming's Citizen Kane, and hopefully, in the future, games like Knee Deep and Virginia will be dealt with the sort of bemused scorn they deserve. We have too many good developments in video games for them to get anything else.

Also, what's with the way they drew hands in Virginia?


Jesus Christ.

Well, that's the crap out of the way. On to the good stuff!

The Psycho Mantis "Prudent Person" Award For Best Video Game, 2016


Honorable Mention - Downwell

Although a 2015 game technically, Downwell got its Android and PS3/4/Vita versions this year, allowing me to sink unthinkable amounts of time into it on various platforms. If you still haven't tried this one, I urge you to do so now. It really is one of the finest platformers ever made, brilliantly designed, beautiful and most importantly, incredibly fun.

Honorable Mention - Slain: Back From Hell

Slain is a game I was really excited for when trailers first came out. A retro, heavy-metal swords-and-sorcery platformer sounds right up my alley. When it came out, however, it got a very cold reception due to a very basic combat system, a lot of missing audio cues, and an all-around shoddy presentation and feel. Disappointed, I decided to forget about the game.

Luckily, Slain fell into the hands of a much better team, and Slain: Back From Hell was released as an apology to those who were so disappointed in the end product. The result is a game that, while not revolutionary in any way, is a whole bunch of fun and, by all accounts, is far better than the original.

It's bad practice to give awards to games that patched out problems after release, which is why Back From Hell shouldn't be considered for GOTY. However, it gets a mention because it is a positive counter to that commonly misused Shigeru Miyamoto quote about delayed games: here we have a game that was bad, but won't be bad forever. Here's hoping the people who got it that way will get to make a new game from the ground up. Whether it'll be a Slain 2 or an entirely new game, they certainly deserve credit for the respect they have shown their audience and the medium.

Also, the dialogues between the protagonist and the crone are amazing.

Firewatch

Firewatch has the distinction of being the first walking simulator I truly enjoyed. To this day, when I think about it, I remember its lovely art style, the quiet ambience of the wind and water, the animals you see along the way, and how good it feels to just move around the world and take in its beauty. While some of its trickery is apparent and jarring - like when two distant characters are represented by stick figures and the game thought we wouldn't notice - it just works so well most of the time that these issues are easy to forgive. 

I only played Firewatch once so far, which is unfortunate. This is one walking simulator where your choices actually have an effect on the story, and the developers even included dialogue for a set of choices few players are likely to take up, where you simply ignore dialogue options altogether. The silent exploration leaves so much space for you to think about what's going on and what you want to say and do next, and it never feels like you're railroaded into treating characters a specific way just because the game wants you to. Plus I liked the ending, so there. 

Oh, and you can play with turtles!

Many turtles.

I only ever found one, though.

DarkMaus

I wasn't massively impressed by Dark Souls III. In general, I find the Dark Souls games are the least enjoyable of the Soulsborne games, and while III is probably the best of the trilogy, it doesn't even approach the level of quality of Bloodborne. I also didn't like how it referenced the first game - to me, a lot of the fun of playing From's games is in trying to make sense of the alien world I have been put into, and when I know so much of the world already, that sense is completely gone. And so, sadly, Dark Souls III isn't one of my favorite games of the year, but thanks to DarkMaus, it's not even my favorite Souls-like game of the year. 

DarkMaus' premise is simple: a top-down adventure game with a Dark Souls-style combat system where you play a mouse. However, the devil is in the details here, and what DarkMaus truly succeeds in is in creating the sort of bleak world atmosphere that is integral to the series that it's aping. There's secret areas, madness, brutality, cruelty, betrayal - all the arcane mystery and danger that make these games stick with players so much. 

And it even has a dodge system that isn't a broken mess, so that's nice.

Uncharted 4

This one was not expected. I hated Uncharted 3, and am one of the few people on the planet who found The Last of Us very meh, because I'm not a sucker for hype I just didn't think it was mechanically all that interesting.

However, Uncharted 4 is legit. It's a loud, dumb action game, but it has real soul to it. It is finally a Naughty Dog game with interesting characters and an actual point to make, a story about siblings - which I'm always a sucker for - and the way they balance their desire to make each other happy with their own happiness. And while I didn't much care for the actual shoot-outs, I really liked the platforming sections, which is surprising because that's hands-down what I hated the most about 3. I also think the multiplayer must've been pretty good in those first few weeks before it completely died.

Uncharted 4 is so good that it's pretty high on my list of games from this year I want to replay. Naughty Dog finally made a game I love, and I couldn't be happier.

Oxenfree

5 minutes in, I was gearing up to hate Oxenfree, with its typical cast of obnoxious douchebag teenagers you're supposed to want to see dead. Not too long afterwards, though, Oxenfree got its hooks in me. The characters became more interesting, the atmosphere got truly dark, and I got more and more interested in uncovering the story beyond the funny radio noises. 

Horror is at its best when it is accentuated by silliness, and Oxenfree uses this in its favor with great proficiency. Humor is used to great effect, endearing characters to you and making the moments where you have to make tough decisions about them all the more effective. If you were turned off by the first few scenes of the game, I urge you to reconsider - there's depth to this game, even if it comes off as initally as typical horror schlock.

IMSCARED

2016 saw a whole bunch of games released whose point was to completely shatter the fouth wall, to the point where this risked becoming an annoyingly-overused concept for a while. Pony Island, Calendula and SUPERHOT all had uncooperative menu screens and creepy texts trying to get in your head. 

However, to me, IMSCARED stands above all those other games in successfully playing on the player's fears, to the point where I actually don't want to say any more about it. Just go play it. It's dirt cheap, scary as hell, and amazing. It got to me on a basic, almost technical level, but I can't say more without ruining something so just Go. Get. It.

Kathy Rain

Grant us eyes, grant us eyes!

Kathy Rain's Android version was released on a week when I was suffering some serious leg pain, to the point where I had to stay in bed. Good thing, too, because once I picked it up, I couldn't stop. 

Kathy Rain is a retro point-and-click game, of the kind that has been having a bit of a renaissance lately, no doubt due in part to Jay Tholen's excellent Dropsy. Rain is a college student and a budding detective who one day finds out that her long-estranged grandfather has died. After his funeral, she reconnects with her grandmother and starts to investigate the mysterious circumstances of his death.

Point-and-click puzzle games are notorious for their obtuse, moon-logic puzzles, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by Kathy Rain. The puzzles are challenging, but upon finding out the solution, you never feel like you lucked out or just combined items until something worked. Despite there being a bit too much going back and forth between places to my taste, it always feels like there's a logic to the solutions, even when it isn't necessarily apparent. The result is that the process of coming up with a solution is so enjoyable that you're never frustrated by being stuck, something very few puzzle games manage to accomplish.

Aside from solving puzzles to progress through the story, Kathy Rain also gives the player the chance to connect the dots between the many plot threads in the game, exploring themes of corruption, insanity, abuse, friendship and family, among others. It's a beautifully crafted story, with many touching and funny moments, with an ending that's effective in a way that I unfortunately can't say more about without spoiling it. Suffice to say, it's one of the most satisfying stories I've seen in a while.

So I really hope that sequel baiting ending was legit, because I'd play the shit out of a Kathy Rain 2.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

There's very little I can say about 1979 Revolution that I haven't already said in my review, but I believe this part sums things up quite well:

"Banalities are never in short supply when one tries to discuss the popular uprisings of the past: "revolutions devour their own children", "violence begets violence", "absolute power corrupts absolutely" - such platitudes are often all people feel the need to say about events that have had enough books written about them to fill up a library. When they take place in a Middle-Eastern country, the racist idea that Muslims, left to their own devices, can only replace a pro-Western dictatorial regime with an even worse, Islamic regime, is all the more tempting to those whose understanding of the region has been heavily colored by post-9/11 Islamophobia...

With such heavy subject matter to tackle, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday's triumph in interactive storytelling is all the more significant. By having the player character take an active role in the revolution as well as exposing players to its social, cultural and political backdrop, it can be said with no hyperbole that it has won an important place in video game history."

Unforutnately, I believe recent events make this statement all the more pertinent.

Best of the Year - DOOM

No surprises here. After years of grey military shooters, the king is back. DOOM manages to take the level design of the first Doom and the fast paced shooting galleries of the Doom II and mix them up into something that isn't exactly like either of those games, but instead a new, superior product. I've written about the brilliance of DOOM's mechanics, the way they complement each other and contribute to the game's sheer adrenaline rush of a pace; slightly better known gaming media people have spoken about the genius way it characterizes its protagonist; but what's truly amazing about DOOM is that none of that analysis is really that necessary. 

Don't get me wrong, it's fun to analyze DOOM as much as any great game. But a lot of media becomes better or worse upon reflection. But DOOM's qualities are so obvious and distinctive that it seems so much easier to let it speak for itself. A lot of game design is concerned with having the player realize how to play the game without telling them explicitly how to do so, and in that sense, DOOM is a masterpiece of game design. It is by no means easy - on Nightmare difficulty, it's quite a challenge - but the difficulty always encourages adjustment rather than repetition. 
DOOM could have easily been a very bleak game, constantly trying to shock players with the sheer horror and misery of hell. There is some of that in the game, of course; but it also knows how to be colorful, almost cartoony, respectful of its past without having any of what it does feel like gratuitous fan-service.

It's also such a beautiful game. I mean, look at this flower jar.
That flower jar...
THIS FUCKING FLOWER JAR, MAN
A lot of people complained about the multiplayer, but I actually like it quite a lot. I have put more time into certain team-based, objective-driven games that shall remain nameless, but as far as mindless run-around-shooting games, this is the sort of multiplayer mode I've always wanted. It's fast and tactical, the complete opposite of Call of Duty's hope-you-see-the-other-guy-first style, and most importantly, you can turn into a demon - including, after some recent updates, a Cacodemon. 

You can be a Cacodemon, people. 

How could this ever not by GOTY?

***

Well, that's it for 2016. It's December 31st, and it's time for my yearly tradition of playing Metal Gear Solid alone in my apartment and wondering why no one likes me SEE YA'LL NEXT YEAR!