Monthly Archives: December 2013

That’s it! I’m taking the rest of the year off!

See you in 2014!

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Review – Papers, Please – PC

Paperwork is often the worst part of many jobs.  Reviewing countless documents to ensure accuracy and proper processing doesn’t traditionally join flying into space and fighting fires as tasks kids want to do when they grow up.  Yet, despite the inherent drudgery, Papers, Please creates an engaging game around the reviewing of passports.  Even more surprising is that Papers, Please has a lot to say about the nature of the bureaucracy and the trials of living in an oppressive state.  Who knew that processing papers could be fun and meaningful?

The basic premise is simple.  The player checks passports for individuals attempting to enter the fictional, totalitarian state of Arstotzka.  At first, the passports are simple and the errors are easy to catch.  As the days go on, additional documents and rules are added which require the player to memorize an ever increasing array of procedural complication.  When the player finds an error in the documents, they flag it and send the applicant packing.  Denying entry to a valid applicant or allowing in an invalid one results in warnings that eventually carry financial penalties for repeated failures.  The player’s salary depends on the number of documents processed which encourages quick, smart play.  The player collects their salary at the end of the day and then must cover the expenses of their family.  Often the payment isn’t enough to fund important basics like food and heat forcing the player to balance a number of pressing needs.

The document checking mechanic of Papers, Please is surprisingly satisfying, particularly when the player gets into the flow of the game.  Documents fly by and even the denials give off a feeling of a job well done.  While the passport review is undeniably fun, the heart of the game is in the events that occur.  Refugees, drug dealers, spies, and more will come through the passport window all asking for assistance and offering incentives.  Will you let through the refugee with the outdated documents?  How about the drug dealer offering you a bribe?  Hanging over these decisions is the ever present feeling of danger should the player be discovered and the stark math of the penalties removing vital income necessary to preserve the player’s family back home.  This is where the greater meaning is found.  Papers, Please forces the player to ask about the nature of protest and heroism in the dark world of totalitarian governments.  Each action has consequence and an individual’s desire for freedom from oppression may be overridden by their duty to their family.  A large number of decisions had my finger hovering about the mouse and wondering if I was making the right play.

The only area Papers, Please really stumbles is with the family dynamic.  Whereas the passport window is replete with bleak visuals and a plodding soundtrack that lend authenticity to each encounter, the family is only represented by a black screen with a few lines of text.  The passionate pleas of petitioners give way to family members represented by the words “son” or “uncle”.  The gamey nature of the family budget also has a dehumanizing effect.  Most gamers will quickly realize that heat and food must come every other day and will do so by default.  It’s hard to sympathize with the family when contrasted with the emotional and murky decisions that make up the rest of the game.

Overall, Papers, Please is a unique and engaging game.  It takes a traditionally ignored topic and turns it into something fun and meaningful.  If you’ve ever experienced the satisfaction of working through a list or want to play in a truly unique setting, give it a shot.

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Review – Grand Theft Auto V – Xbox 360

Where GTA V is reviewed and babies are born

Grand Theft Auto V is an interesting game.  It boasts major production values, gaming’s most expansive world, and a genuinely interesting couple of lead characters that would shine in almost any game.  Unfortunately, GTA V is not defined by its strengths, but by its weaknesses.  For all the obvious time and effort that went into the game, it feels listless.  GTA V is the culmination of incredible success, overwhelming ambition, and an inability to bring that all together into a strong, cohesive package.

The basic mechanics of the game should be familiar to any series stalwart or lover of open world action games.  The player controls one of three characters, Trevor, Franklin, or Michael, as they accept missions, plot plans, and interact with the population of Los Santos.  GTA V’s first big innovation to the usual activities is the new heist system where the player plans and executes major thefts by selecting one of two mission types, picking a crew based on their skills and payment, and completing  a variety of missions surrounding heist.  These missions are generally well executed and provide variety beyond the straight shoot out.  They help the player feel as if they are participating in a heist, rather than just another mission.  Unfortunately, the limitations of the options become obvious quickly undermining the feeling of choice that Rockstar was attempting to convey.  Like many of GTA V’s mechanics, heists don’t feel as fleshed out as they should, but they’re still a pulse-pounding good time.

The other new mechanic is the introduction of three main leads.  Trevor, Michael, and Franklin are three unique bank robbers with conflicting and intertwining motivations for engaging in a series of audacious heists.  The player can switch between the leads on the fly allowing for different gameplay and perspectives on the events.  Once again, the mechanic feels underutilized as the perspective is often just a different view on the same event, but the occasional time spent as a dog, or torturing a prisoner while teammates assassinate a target are highlights of the experience.   More differentiation between character skills or genuinely different experiences for each character would have made this mechanic more engaging and will hopefully be developed in the sequel.

The three characters are the highlight of what is a generally a bland cast of vapid stereotypes.  GTA V’s attempts at satire and humor transform the supporting cast into one note commentary on the shallowness of life forcing the three leads to hold up the story.  Franklin, the black tough from the streets, is little more than a suggestible gun whose lack of emotional depth and repeated willingness to go along with bad plans make him a more developed, but still flat character.  Trevor and Michael, on the other hand, are the real stars of the game.  Trevor’s amoral psychotic behavior and Michael’s oscillating views on violence and crime come together to create an interesting alchemy.  The constant clashing between these two and their motivations serves to develop their personalities, create GTA V’s best interactions and drives much of the plot.  Trevor and Michael’s relationship is the star of GTA V’s storyline and it produces a gripping narrative.

From the first step into the world of Los Santos, it’s obvious how much love Rockstar put into this world.  The graphics are gorgeous, the setting is varied, and the sheer size of Los Santos is absolutely mind boggling.  Walking down the street, the player hears conversations in progress as people in the world go about their everyday lives.  Even the main characters feel organic, rather than player controlled automatons.  Take control of Trevor and you might find him in a drug fueled haze without any explanation for the dead bodies that surround him.  Switch over to Franklin and watch him finish up his exercise for the day.  All this combines to create a feeling that Los Santos is a living, breathing world and not just a level crafted for a particular mission.  This adds to a feeling of realism that few other games can match.  Actions, particularly the anarchic destruction that the series and the genre is known for, feel all the more impactful because it’s contained within a world that feels like a world.  Almost every open world game allows the player to drive fast, blow up cars, and fight cops, but few can match GTA V’s sheer authenticity.  That feeling adds additional excitement to each car chase, shoot out, and game event.

Unfortunately, for all the strengths of GTA V, Rockstar never seems to bring them together into a cohesive whole.  Various elements seem to exist to add more things to the universe rather than building a cohesive game.  The use of money is a perfect example.  After the first heist, the player has enough money to afford the best weapons in the game.   Beyond guns, money serves little purpose.  There are properties to buy, but they just provide more money, and at a dramatically reduced return than if the player had kept the money in the first place.  Other than that, the monetary reward from the heists is useless.  The same can be said of the side missions, mini games, and other ancillary aspects of the game.  They float in a giant world without context or cause.  The narrative suffers from a similar approach where characters and events are mentioned once for the purpose of a plot development and then dropped.  Franklin, a character in desperate need of development, has a romantic back story that is mentioned twice in a side mission and then used as a catalyst for an end mission.  Rather than feel organic, the use of Franklin’s ex-girlfriend feels forced and unnecessary.  The same can be said of any of the side events.  GTA V often feels more like parts of a game rather than a well crafted experience.

Puzzling design choices also plague the game.  GTA V is miserly with information by hiding it behind menus and simultaneously over and under explains concepts.  GTA V will remind the player what a hideout does every time the player acquires one, but fails to remind the player about how to fly a plane.  This is made all the more aggravating by the numerous control schemes that Rockstar implements.  With varying controls for driving, shooting while driving, running, creeping, flying, and lifting things while flying, it is hard for the player to know what the control scheme is for a given event.  This leads to unnecessary confusion and frustration when a simplified system would have made for a more approachable experience.  When the player does understand the controls, they are marred by questionable decisions such as including a button to switch to a cinematic, but totally useless, camera while relegating the map behind a menu.  Like the story and the gameplay, the controls feel like a victim of feature creep.  Tons of activities and ideas are jammed together without focusing on what actually matters.  Rockstar couldn’t seem to identify the line between where more is better and more is clutter.

GTA V is not a bad game.  It contains a degree of polish that is hard to achieve and signifies considerable talent.  The problem is that it never focuses.  Rockstar didn’t seem to know what it wanted to do with the game and so it tried to do a little bit of everything.  With a stronger vision and a more disciplined approach, Rockstar could have created a tighter, more cohesive experience.  Hopefully future iterations of this franchise will.

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GTA V Diary #4

It’s okay if we offend as long as we offend everyone…right?

One of the common defenses of GTA V’s heavy use of stereotype is that the game is an equal opportunity satire that holds a mirror up to our society and shows how ridiculous we’ve become. Offending people is fine, so the argument goes, as long as it serves the higher purpose of social commentary. The fact that just about everyone is in GTA’s crosshairs means that no one is left out and so no one can be offended. As far as the basic argument goes, I don’t object. Satire is a legitimate form of social commentary that often takes extreme and objectionable views to highlight the flaws in an idea. Furthermore, GTA V can honestly make this claim. That doesn’t mean it does satire well, just that it is doing it.

I wrote earlier that Rockstar populated its world with a non-stop barrage of vapid stereotypes . As I have progressed through the game, I can honestly say that the only exception to this rule is the inclusion of Trevor and Michael. Both are well developed with interesting variations on old clichés that make them fun to watch and discover their character arcs. Everyone else is just a one note cardboard cutout designed to facilitate a section of gameplay and pass along GTA V’s big message: Everybody is shallow these days. That’s right, GTA V is your crotchy grandfather who is angry at the world for not raising its kids right anymore. I wish I could say there was more to it, but that’s it. From Michael’s daughter Trisha getting hump for fame to joining a Scientology knock off cult that very clearly is taking your money, every bit of satire in this game is calling the modern world shallow. That’s all GTA V has to say.

Good satire explores the ideas that it targets. Satire doesn’t just ask that you laugh at an idea; it says things about those ideas and points out the silly or contradictory nature of the idea. The shame about GTA V is not that it is offensive, but that it wastes its voice to make intellectually stupid comparisons that have been made many times elsewhere. It’s no longer enough to have an entitled millennial who just wants everything handed to them on a platter. That stereotype is well worn. The stronger statement is why that is or is not a fair evaluation of that population and what that means for society. Instead, GTA V just collects all the stereotypes in one place and lets them roam free in the most mindless incarnations. Good satire says something. GTA just repeats it. Ad nauseum.

This is not to say that Rockstar’s approach isn’t entirely without merit. In some areas, such as the aptly named Facebook knock-off “Lifeinvader”, the game speaks more intelligently about the loss of privacy and cult of self involvement that results. Occasionally, Rockstar even drops satire in favor of ranting on a soap box such as when Trevor monologues on the ineffectiveness of torture. GTA V can say things when its creators want it to. The game just needs to be smarter about it. Like realism and the mini games, Rockstar needs to pick on a few ideas and work with them rather than dumping underdeveloped copies in the game. Less can be more, particularly when it comes to saying something worthwhile.

Next Up – The actual review!

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GTA V Diary #3

Gameplay elements!  Go to your corners and think about what you’ve done.

 

There is a moment following the first bank heist where the player takes control of Franklin in a strip club.  Franklin can play a simple mini game where he throws cash and the stripper (let’s call her Sophocles) likes Franklin more.  Throw enough money at Sophocles, and she will invite Franklin to a private dance mini game which increases both the gyration and boobage on offer.  Maxing out Sophocles’ “like” meter results in the anticipated sex scene which is actually just a panoramic shot of a building having an orgasmicaly good time.  Sophocles’ contact information is added to Franklin’s phone and the game continues on unchanged.

Moments like the above scene can be extremely valuable when establishing a sense of place in a world.  They are an isolated bit of gameplay that, by virtue of being untied to the larger game, promote the idea that the world has hidden nooks and continues on while the player is elsewhere.  This encourages the player to explore the world as if it were real and rewards that exploration.  Unfortunately for GTA V, the stripping mini game is not just a world building vignette, but also an example of one of the game’s major failings.  GTA V has tons of disparate gameplay elements that don’t interact with each other.  They exist in separate universes without contributing to each other. 

Consider the previous situation again.

In his brief time with Sophocles, Franklin shelled out money and treated the player to a couple of scenes sure to titillate the 13 year old crowd.  Nothing else, besides Franklin’s bank account, changed.  Franklin didn’t become stronger, get access to special weaponry, or open up a new story line.  There is no discernible difference between a player who completed the mini game and one who did not.  The same can be said of a number of mini games that pop up throughout GTA V.  At one point, Franklin helps out an old flame by running her husband’s tow trucking business while he is strung out on drugs.  Again, Franklin performs the required actions and receives nothing at the end.  Nothing Franklin does in the tow truck appears to contribute to anything else he will do in that world.  What this does is force the player to evaluate the mini game strictly on its own merits.  If the game isn’t fun by itself, then there is no reason to do it because it doesn’t add value anywhere else.  Unfortunately for Rockstar, most of its mini games just don’t hold up.

There’s a reason Tow Truck Simulator never made it to the top of the sales charts.  It’s not a particularly glamorous or entertaining job, yet that is exactly what GTA V has the player do repeatedly without compensation.  Contrast that with the Saint’s Row series where each element of the game links which each other element.  GTA-like minigames called diversions provide money and new abilities.  Main missions capture territories that provide income and protection for the next mission.  Even traditional money sink holes like businesses and shops provide the player with the tools to take on larger tasks.  Not all of these activities are fun, but they are worth doing on the merits of what they contribute to the rest of the game. 

 

In creating a myriad of isolate game elements, GTA V gives off the impression that Rockstar just threw ideas into the game without considering how they would fit.  As a result, they’re, at best, worthwhile only if the gameplay they present is worthwhile.  Rockstar needs to focus on what value its activities add and judge them both on their own merits and what they add to the rest of the game.   Few, more focused minigames with a clearer conception of what they add is more fun than randomly modeling a game of darts.  Until Rockstar gives me magic stripper superpowers for frequenting the clubs, I’m sorry Sophocles, but we’re through. 

Next Up  – Stereotypes are not satire

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