games

Video Games as Literature: Thomas Was Alone and Sentient AI

image source: wiki

image source: wiki

Brent Hopkins

Thomas Was Alone is an indie game developed by Mike Bithell that was originally a simple flash game, but was then expanded upon to become a full release for major platforms. I had the pleasure to play this game through Steam after picking it up on sale for something like 30 cents.

The game itself is a simple platformer that asks you to take basic four-sided shapes and help them reach their portals located somewhere in the stage. This is simple enough, and the learning curve may be the best one I have seen in a puzzle platformer. I never felt the game was too easy and, on the other end of the spectrum, I never had to resort to looking at a guide to solve an unfairly complex puzzle. This all benefits the game overall since this allows a lot of focus on the story of Thomas Was Alone.

The narrative of Thomas Was Alone is by far its strong suit. Bithell manages to use the 100 levels of the main game to bestow personality onto the most basic shapes you can have. This is done through narration that either occurs at the beginning of a level or at certain trigger points in a level. The narrator is perfect at  giving each shape a special flair when they are talking  and I must admit it doesn’t hurt that it is a pleasant British one to boot (I feel like semi-snarky, British narrators are practically a must have for text and dialogue-heavy games).

Thomas is the first shape that you meet and you quickly learn that he and his other cohorts are artificial intelligences that have become sentient. Their goal is to acquire knowledge and escape the system, which in terms of the real world would mean floating around freely in the internet. This is a pretty interesting story for a rather short game (I beat it in 4.6 hours, according to Steam) but there are some flaws. The most obvious issue with the narrative is that nothing is really fleshed out. You have a team of shapes and they are very clearly unique: one can float in water, one can double-jump, and Thomas is the “Mario” of the team as the all-around shape. The personalities portrayed also help flesh out the characters, as each is a relative extreme. I found myself thinking “Orange Square is a dick but his relationship with Long Rectangle is endearing, so let’s make sure they help each other a lot.” This is a complete success in storytelling and I am happy that I found myself making these little mental decisions in much the same way I did in the game Journey.

The design decision to go level by level with snippets of the story means that the end has to come by chapter 100. This is a platformer though, so it is obvious that you can’t have the player sitting and waiting for the narrator to shut up to finish a level. I think Bithell hit a relatively sweet spot in Thomas Was Alone, but I was definitely left wanting just a bit more story by the end.

Another issue with the story is that at times it completely interrupts the gameplay, or vice versa. I found myself on more than one occasion going through a level too quickly when the narrator was far from done, so it turned into an audio novel as opposed to a game. The same thing happened when I was expecting more narration in a level and it wrapped up really quickly. It could be argued that this wanting of more storyline is a success, but it truly just felt disjointed and too noticeable.

Thomas Was Alone takes the bare minimum in terms of graphics and gameplay and gives some heart and soul to it. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses, but together they accomplish something far greater than all of their parts. The growing of the AI characters throughout reminded me of the film Her, where I could imagine this being the prequel of sorts to the story of the AI represented in that film. In both, the AI are never portrayed as malicious, but instead as beings with the ability to absorb and attain knowledge at a rate that far exceeds that of humans. This vast knowledge doesn’t lead to a Terminator type insurrection from appliances but instead shows that AI quickly pass the human emotions phase. Skip the murder everything phase and get right to wanting to be seen as equal “beings.”

I kind of like this new approach to AI that Hollywood and the gaming industry have begun to take, because it really opens up a lot of interesting thoughts about what could happen if computers grew feelings. The 80s and 90s automatically figured that nothing good could possibly come from it, but these days, as computers become as much a part of life as breathing, it is nice to see that there are more options for narratives to take than that of The Matrix and its ilk.

Thomas Was Alone is a good game, not great by any means, but well worth the price and time that it asks you to invest.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

 Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a cyberpunk action RPG developed by Eidos Montreal in 2011. Stylistically, cyberpunk is a mashup of film noir (alienated loner protagonist, detective structure, grim outlook) and near-future science fiction. Neuromancer is the most famous work in the genre, and Snow Crash, Blade Runner, and to a certain extent The Matrix are other examples. The setting of most cyberpunk is the point at which corporations and technology begin overwhelming the more traditional structures of power with mixed (but mostly negative) results. In Human Revolution, the technology that is approaching a world-altering paradigm shift is cybernetic augmentation – the ability for a person with a lost arm, a scarred retina, or a faulty heart to get a fully-functional robotic replacement. It opens with Adam Jensen, the protagonist, fulfilling his role as head of security for Sarif Industries, the CEO of which is about to hold a press conference about a huge scientific breakthrough. While Jensen is moving through the labs, they are invaded by a souped-up merc team (the dark side of augmentation is that there are endless military applications, and these guys are armed to their cybernetic teeth). The scientists working on the project are all killed (including Jensen’s ex-girlfriend), and Jensen himself is physically destroyed. Sarif saves him by having him undergo extensive cybernetic surgery, replacing most of his body with mechanical parts, turning him into a kind of cyberpunk Darth Vader, more machine than man. With basically his entire body turned into a weapon, he launches on his quest for answers and revenge.

Here’s the E3 trailer for the game.

The gameplay as he moves through this quest is extremely satisfying and versatile. Your arsenal is a combination of military-grade cybernetic augmentations along with more standard pistols, assault rifles, and grenades. There are multiple paths throughout every level, multiple choices for how to deal with enemies, and really cool tech to use to accomplish those things. There seems to be a bias in the game for you to move through it peaceably, as you get more XP for knocking people out instead of shooting them in the head. Other than this slight benefit to being kind, the moral choices in this game are mostly left up to you. There is none of the ridiculous starkness of choice from the early morality-based RPG craze (in which you could choose to give a beggar all of your money or murder him for his shoes, no middle ground). This deepens the main-character-as-cipher effect that helps the player become the protagonist. With no in-game judgment attached to your actions, Jensen’s decisions are your decisions. I chose to go through more peacefully than not, knocking out innocent bystanders but slaughtering anyone I found to be involved with the attack on Sarif Industries (they killed my ex and left me for dead, after all).

The augmentations you choose have a lot to do with how you play the game, and many interact with each other. For example, if you invest heavily in cloaking, you can just sprint invisibly through a room. If you invest in hacking, you can find a computer and shut down the internal surveillance system. If you invest in hacking and the arm strength upgrades (which by itself allows you to kill people by throwing refrigerators at them), you can hack a turret to make it friendly and then just carry it through the level (this is a game-breaking combo). If you upgrade your sight to be able to see through walls and upgrade your arms to be able to punch through them, it enables you to time your strike so it takes out multiple people. The customization and slow strengthening of Jensen due to unlocking more and more augmentations is extremely pleasurable – is he an invisible ghost, is he an unstoppable, neck-snapping colossus, or is he somewhere in between? The absurd level of strength your character has by the end of the game (playing on normal difficulty) ties into the thematic concerns of the game – augmentation allows one solitary man to become a terror to both powerful governments and nation-spanning multi-billion dollar corporations.

This leads into why this game is here and not elsewhere on the site. It engages deeply with the moral quandaries and personal concerns involved with human advancement. Jensen himself is a little flat, as you are meant to fill him in with your own thoughts and preconceptions, but he moves in a world of people with frighteningly powerful opinions: his boss, Sarif, who thinks augmentation is the next step in human evolution, terrorists, who think augmentation is an abomination, and government officials, who are terrified of this new human potential that can make controlling a population all but impossible. Jensen himself, as one of the most heavily modified humans in existence, stands at the center of all these ambitions and concerns. He single-handedly justifies governmental concerns – if you play the game right, he is unkillable and undetectable. The conversations Jensen has with people, the actions he takes, and the ultimate outcome of the game (much of which is up to player decisions) all heavily involve the age-old SF trope of the benefits and drawbacks of human progress. It is an expertly developed theme planted right in the middle of a satisfying gaming experience, and if you own a console and like cyberpunk, you need to play it.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Tough Questions: What’s the Most Meaningless Game You’ve Ever Cheated In?

question-mark

Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the most meaningless game you’ve ever cheated in?

Rules are simple: what are you capable of doing to win, even when the chips aren’t down? A story about cheating to win is still a story about winning. A story about cheating in something meaningless — something truly, truly meaningless — is a story about depravity.

Alex Russell

Either only children cheat in games more often or that’s what I tell myself to excuse my shitty behavior. I was ruthless as a kid. I would move pieces when people looked away. I would do anything it took to give me an upper hand. There’s a great term in the world of video games for this now, a euphemism for some kinds of cheating: “clever use of game mechanics.” I’ll take my best moments to my grave, but my dumbest “use of game mechanics” surely has to have happened in a bowling alley. I have a ton of hubris about my bowling (which is dumb in a different way), but like anyone else with too much pride, I fear the fall. I’ll talk in your backswing. As the expression goes, “It is not enough that I succeed, others must fail.” Bowling doesn’t matter, but damn if I don’t forget that instantly in those places.

Jonathan May

Monopoly: the game my mother calls a “marriage ender.” It’s the kind of game where people generally agree upon “house rules” beforehand, but I generally also operate on a few private rules of my own. For instance, I make deals with players concerning property and free passes and such, and I’ve been accused of cheating many times while taking the “Free Parking” money. But I just consider those who call “cheat” to be jealous. Monopoly is totally the kind of game that reveals everything about someone. It should definitely be played with Xanax.

Brent Hopkins

I don’t remember the last time I cheated in a game. I am a bit of a “knight” when it comes to competition and I’d rather get beaten badly than win unfairly. That’s probably why I never accept handicaps in games, also. How else am I supposed to be the very best? Like no one ever was.

Andrew Findlay

I do not resort to cheating. I mostly just yell loudly at whoever is beating me. I am going to tell of the most egregious cheating that has ever been practiced upon me. I was at a wedding in Germany with a lot of good friends and my wife. German weddings are uh, kind of next-level when it comes to festivities. I don’t even mean drinking – I mean all the skits and games the ones close to the bride and groom are supposed to come up with. The groom’s best man, his brother, decided that his contribution would be to introduce dizzy bat to Germany. He was successful, and it was great. It was also girls versus boys. The men stood up, taking this very seriously, most having already tied quite a few on. All of us were very dedicated, and I can definitely say that spinning around on a bat, drinking an entire pint, then running down the room is almost a terrifying experience. I cannot remember any other time in my life where, running, I could literally not tell where the ground was going to be the next time my foot hit it. Anyway, we committed. The women went through their whole relay a split second before we did – damn, we lost! Then we saw five entirely full beers on a table right next to their team. They were just setting the beers to the side, and our entire team was too into competing to even notice.

Gardner Mounce

I’m sure I cheated at games a lot when I was a kid, but nothing sticks out except for this dick move I’d do when my older sister got “Free Parking” in Monopoly where I’d dig my fingers under the board–really get both hands under there, as close to center as possible–and I’d try to make the board hit the ceiling. Then I’d laugh like it was funny, like no one else had been enjoying the game either and I had just livened the mood. Except everyone had been enjoying the game, especially my older sister. It’s okay. I hate myself, too.

Colton Royle

I could insert any video game from the 1990s into this category. In all seriousness though, our family played Bible Trivia, which is just a religious Trivia Pursuit. We would have a weekly bible study and my sister and I would try to convince my parents to play trivia instead. During these games I would do anything I could, whether it was keeping a bible in the bathroom, or just something simple like looking behind a card, to get the “answers.” I can’t tell if I was a either good player for being desperate for answers or a terrible person for cheating at bible games.

Final Fantasy VII and the Expanded Advent Children Universe

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Brent Hopkins

The title should let you know that this is going to be about a rather old game. Final Fantasy VII was released back in 1997 on the original PlayStation and immediately became the poster child for what RPGs could be. The graphics were amazing, the story was stellar, and the game itself spanned three discs, which was nigh unheard of. As I decided to write this article Alex Russell asked, “What is there new to say about FF7?” He had a good point and I held off writing for a few days because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just rehashing what thousands of others had said. I finally settled this inner argument because I actually ended up with two different ideas, and neither of them really focuses on the game. Instead, they focus more on implications and revelations of what Squaresoft/Square Enix has accomplished. There will be no review of the game or achievement rating. These two articles will purely be about FF7 and how they relate to the real world.

The first aspect I want to focus on is why Advent Children and the various spinoffs should be the general direction games –especially RPGs– should go in. So, spoilers.

FF7 is a game about a group called AVALANCHE that wants to save the planet. They do this through terrorist acts against the government, Shinra, which is stealing the life force of the planet to create usable energy. Imagine if when we used all the gasoline Earth would implode. They decide to use this opportunity and kill a bunch of people (AVALANCHE members and the poor) by literally crushing the entire town where AVALANCHE is headquartered. The government wants to move forward with draining the energy from the planet and decides to use an alien object called Jenova to do so. Jenova corrupts one of the most powerful humans in the world and he calls forth a meteor that will impact the planet and kill everyone. The main cast must race against time to stop this from happening.

That is the extremely watered down version of what occurs in the game, but just from that you can get the feeling that this is intense. The first few times I played through this game I was absolutely blown away by the story and the characters. There was no game that I had played where so many characters were fleshed out so well. This didn’t just include the main villain and the main cast, but side characters and family members as well. There were so many people that impacted the main story that it was easy to forget just how integral they were to the story. This led to an issue that occurs across all forms of entertainment: I was really interested in knowing more about these characters that received second billing and there was no avenue to get more.

There is an oddly accepted gaming mindset that once the game ends, that is that. FF7 ends with a meteor almost wiping out the entire planet. It is now 2014 and I know that I never really asked myself after 20 something playthroughs “What happened?” I, and most everyone I know who played it, accepted that the planet survived and some things lived. You see Red XIII in the post credits. This is unfulfilling, but that’s just the life of a game, it isn’t a real world.

Square then started releasing supplementary material to help flesh out the story of FF7, and most of it was solid in terms of world building. The two biggest projects were Crisis Core and Advent Children. Crisis Core is a prequel to FF7 and follows a character you hear a lot about in the main game, Zack Fair. This guy is probably the most important person in the story (he personally interacts with Cloud, Aeris, and Sephiroth, the triumvirate of plot driving characters) and Cloud more or less absorbs his life into his own. This prequel is stunning in that it manages to completely work on its own without using the main cast as crutches to push the plot along. Zack manages to be a beautifully tragic hero when his own story is told. This is a far cry from the sentiment you get when playing FF7, where you think, “Oh, so that’s where that sword came from.” You start Crisis Core knowing precisely how it is going to end and it carries that weight the whole way through. The general air for FF7 is tragedy. Zack is a purely bright star that is a foil to the general squalor and misery every other character is in constantly in 7.

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The misery is the next focus and that comes through in spades in Advent Children. It’s an animation that also has an accompanying collection of short stories, On the Way to a Smile. These stories take place in between the end of FF7 the game and the animation portion of Advent Children.

Square initially released Advent Children on its own and it was great to see all the characters fully rendered and running around the various locales you played through in the game. The problem was it came off as extremely heavy-handed because there was a lot of omitted information and it forced you to just accept: THIS is what happened in two years. There is a new disease called Geostigma which is killing people since the meteor was stopped by the planet. People seem to think it is the planet’s punishment for draining the energy. Also, Sephiroth is back after being completely stomped at the end of the game. These are all a bit crazy and just seem like a thoughtless means of bringing the Cloud and Sephiroth conflict to the big screen.

The 2009 release of On the Way to a Smile alongside Advent Children Complete changed everything. These stories manage to explain things that the creators clearly had thought about but were incapable of putting into a game or animation. Geostigma is explained as the corruption Sephiroth/Jenova is spreading through the Lifestream. The main means of infection? Attacking those who are fearful of death. How can Sephiroth exist in the Lifestream when most spirits simply dissipate into it? Through sheer hatred, and the memories that people have of him (Cloud in particular).

On_the_Way_to_a_Smile

The stories follow different characters from the game, but there is no story following Cloud or Vincent. Cloud has the most stories told about him in the series and Vincent received his own spinoff game so I find this omission understandable. The stories expand on each character’s personalities and occasionally overlap with one another to show that there are still ties that bind them to one another. This is done eloquently and it makes the reader/player really ask how the world would rebuild after such a close calamity. You always get the sense that everyone would just celebrate and everything would go back to normal. Square shows that this is far from the case and even the heroes don’t return unscathed.

This is the most jarring realization I got while reading OTWTAS: this world is HORRIBLE. They have the ability to use magic and all the technology of the modern world, but every single person is merely surviving. Throughout the game you have a slew of speeches to motivate the characters and they all culminate in a victory over the bad dude. The ending always felt a bit cheap since there was no real celebration like most games have, but really there is nothing to celebrate for anyone. These people were on the brink of destruction and then what they are left with is worldwide pain and suffering. Maybe it was because I was young, but I always thought it would have been amazing to be one of these super powerful characters. This quickly goes away when you realize that no level of power, even that of a god, saves anyone in this series. This led me to think about other games and you quickly realize that, yes, you technically won, but was the world still doomed (Looking at you, FF6).

The whole point of this article is really to ask why games are one of the few mediums where the happy or tragic ending is often seen as adequate. There used to be a lot of backstory and information in the booklets of games, but there was still that same sense of “great, I won and the game is complete.” More companies should run with the example that Square and Blizzard have set and give canonical story to the consumers. Many games set out to simulate life, yet there are tragically few that have realized that a game is usually not capable of relaying all of the details that make a story engrossing. Invest in animations, books, and sequels and consumers will keep coming back for another slice of these characters’ lives.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Video Games as Literature and The Novelist’s View of Work/Life Balance

novelistwritersblock

Alex Russell

If you’ve ever had to make a hard choice between work and the rest of your life, well, that’s normal. The Novelist is about what happens when you make the wrong one. Oh, and they’re all wrong.

You play The Novelist as a ghost that’s inhabiting a vacation house by the water. The Kaplans (Dan, Linda, and their son Tommy) are on vacation for the summer, and they each want something different out of the trip. Dan wants to finish his second book. Linda wants to work on her painting. Tommy wants to have a fun summer. You might say to yourself that those don’t sound like they’re at odds with each other, but in the world of The Novelist they are violently opposed to one another.

The game unfolds over a series of chapters all centered around important events in the summer. In one chapter, the Kaplan family has to deal with a funeral. In another, Linda has an art show in town. In another, Tommy has a friend over. They all start out as mundane pieces of a family’s life, but the game’s actual narrative is all in how you respond to them.

It’s an interesting choice that you’re not any of the characters. You influence decisions by wandering around the house during the day and observing each family member. Once you feel like you have a grasp on what everyone wants, you signal the family to go to sleep. Then you whisper your choice to the family while they sleep. Whatever you decide will play out in a cut scene, and the results will influence how everyone feels about everyone else (and themselves) in the days to come.

For example, I decided to focus on Linda’s happiness in my playthrough. On one day, I opted to have Dan spend a night talking with Linda instead of working on his novel or playing with Tommy. The next day, Linda felt better about her marriage, Dan felt worried about his book, and Tommy felt neglected by both parents. Me? I felt really sad for everyone.

novelistdialogue

The choices are tough because each choice is also the lack of two other choices. It’s intended to simulate life — if you go out tonight and drink with your friends you don’t get anything done at home, etc — but it’s brutal nonetheless. You know Dan has to finish his novel over the summer, but every single choice of “write” instead of “play with your son” or “talk to your wife” drives him away from his family emotionally. Any choice to not do exactly what the family’s young son wants makes him miserable. I guess that’s realistic to a degree, but it’s too much sometimes. As another example, if you choose to have Dan not play with Tommy and a toy car outside, Tommy leaves the car in the rain and it gets ruined. What is sadder than a lonely child’s ruined toy?

I didn’t side with Tommy very often. My version of Tommy drew angry crayon drawings of his father neglecting him. My version of Linda, who was happy with her art career but unhappy with her husband, never seemed to get exactly what she wanted. My version of Dan was a wreck. Your milage may vary, but it’s hard to imagine any set of choices resulting in true happiness for these people.

It’s certainly true that any choice means you’re eliminating others, but it needn’t be this stark. I don’t want to give away any of the endings, but by only siding with Tommy a handful of times I essentially ruined the kid. It had a really damaging effect on me; I was actually saddened that I had failed this digital child. In that sense I have to say that the narrative (or the narrative in my playthrough) really works. The feelings are real, they’re not “video game feelings.”

The Novelist is a little repetitive – the gameplay isn’t worth mentioning at all, it’s even less of a traditional “game” than Gone Home – and it’s frustrating at times. The challenge of keeping all three people happy is a kind of story-based The Sims; every mood bar is depleting at the same rate, and you’ve gotta keep them all happy to win. I don’t know that I “won” The Novelist, but the mental image of that car in the mud is going to stick with me for a long time.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Video Games as Literature and The Stanley Parable’s Answer to “What is a Game?”

stanleyatdesk

Alex Russell

You are Stanley, and your job is to push buttons when a screen tells you to push buttons. You like your job fine enough normally, but today is different. Today, no one came to work. Today, the office is entirely empty except for you.

That’s where The Stanley Parable starts out, and that’s how it always starts out. The Stanley Parable isn’t a traditional game in a lot of ways, but it has a defined start. Every single playthrough starts with Stanley in his office, alone. Where it goes after that is up to you.

During each “run” of The Stanley Parable, a narrator narrates your actions just before they happen. He may say “Stanley went through the door on the left” just as you confront two doors. It’s up to you to then either follow the narrated story and play out the “true” The Stanley Parable or to “break” the game and make another choice. Most of them are just that simple: the game says you went up the stairs, but maybe you go down the stairs, and so on.

If you do what you’re told every time, you’ll finish the game in about 10 minutes. You’ll discover some secrets about what appears to be a simple office, and you’ll “beat” the game. That’s one way to do it, and it’s not wrong to do so. You’ll experience a complete story. You’ll learn something.

But you’ll learn just as much if you take the door on the right. You’ll learn about who Stanley really is (maybe) and what’s really going on with all these choices (also maybe). You have to decide for yourself what the story of the game is, and it changes a little bit every time.

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Frighteningly realistic workplace graphics.

The full The Stanley Parable experience involves playing it until you see every ending. You’re in for about three or four hours or so maximum if you do that, and that can make the price tag tough to swallow. You can buy it on Steam for the price of a movie in the theaters (though it’s been much cheaper during the Steam Summer Sale) and you will only feel cheated if you assign dollar amounts to fun in strange ways. I can absolutely assure you that this isn’t what you expect, and that much is worth it alone.

The only other thing to discuss is something that has come up a lot lately in games journalism. It sounds dumb, but it boils down to “is The Stanley Parable a game?” Since there are dozens of endings and you can’t really die, there’s no such thing as a fail state. Some of the endings involve the narrator restarting your game and calling you an asshole, essentially, and even those are “true” endings. The Stanley Parable is more interested in testing the boundaries of what beating a game means than it is with what “a game” is in the first place, but people love to debate this stuff. Gone Home, one of the best games of the last few years, is often labeled a “walking simulator” in Steam. It’s meant to be a dig, because in Gone Home the only gameplay is walking around and uncovering a mystery. The only gameplay in The Stanley Parable is making choices and uncovering different endings.

dangereverywhere

Hostile work environment.

The Stanley Parable is open to interpretation. It’s a sort of “choice simulator” where the entire fun of the experience is that every choice is valid. You experience what it means to do A instead of B, but you also consider the fact that most choices don’t really matter. You get very different endings based on what you do, but you never know what inputs will give you what outputs. There’s no morality assigned to going down a staircase instead of going up one, but making that choice once determines if you stay sane or not. So instead of the choices in a lot of games about the morality of good and evil, the choices in The Stanley Parable exist to remind you that you are shaped by decisions that you don’t understand. Your life doesn’t have a narrator that you can listen to or ignore, but your life is also shaped the same as Stanley’s.

I say it counts as literature even without a “real” ending. It’s the story of choice, which is really what every story boils down to, even though most of them don’t start with door number one or door number two.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Games Worth Going Back For: Asura’s Wrath

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Brent Hopkins

In Games Worth Going Back For we look at recent games that you may have skipped that should be picked up sooner rather than later. Today: Asura’s Wrath for the PlayStation 3.

Overview

Asura’s Wrath for the PS3 is an action game made by Capcom that is a completely unique experience. The game plays more like an extended anime episode, with credits rolling with each new chapter and the characters coming off as caricatures of some of your favorite childhood characters. The game is quite fun and is easy to play bit-by-bit to completion. You play the role of the God Asura and set out to get vengeance for the wrongs committed against you. Think Taken the game.

Story

The story of Asura’s Wrath is pretty simple. On a planet similar to Earth called Gaea, an eternal struggle is being fought between eight Buddhist-inspired Gods against the hellish race called Gohma. The Gods and their soldiers are situated in space and the Gohma (led by Vlitra, a massive Gohma that takes up a huge chunk of the planet’s surface each time it spawns) spawn from Gaea itself. After each major battle Vlitra sleeps and gets stronger and the Gods kill the lesser Gohma between each skirmish.

Deus, the leader of the eight Gods, wants to end the struggle once and for all but requires a power source called Mantra, which comes from people’s souls, to strike a massive blow against Vlitra. Small world that Gaea is, Asura’s daughter is a priestess who can manipulate Mantra and empower those she prays for.

Deus, being the upstanding guy he is, kidnaps Asura’s daughter and personally kills Asura. Asura, being known for his rage, actually doesn’t fade away into Mantra, but instead takes hundreds of years to resurrect to get his vengeance. There is friendship, family, and fights throughout and it is just fun to play through. It is a crazy story but really is very simple to follow.

Gameplay

The gameplay is pretty standard beat-em-up fare with a few combos here and there. You don’t really learn new skills or obtain new abilities throughout the game. The fights are all based on a health/damage bar you must fill by hitting your opponent. Once the bar is filled, you are taken to a quick time sequence, where you either defeat the enemy or are taken to the next stage of the fight. If you hate QTEs (quick time events), this game is not for you, as the set pieces are so insane in this game that they are used extensively to allow the player to watch the action like it was an anime.

Like Dragonball Z, Asura unlocks more powerful forms instead of items and abilities, which make him hit harder and move faster. It truly feels like you start as Goku and end up at Super Saiyan 4 by the end of the game.

Capcom also throws in a nice break where you get to play as another god named Yasha. He doesn’t have as many power changes as Asura as he starts out stronger, but he’s extremely fast and a hard hitter. I really loved playing as Yasha and I am glad he is a major part of the game. Oddly, enough, that isn’t my favorite thing about Yasha though but I’ll explain what is later.

Graphics

This game looks relatively good. I found that some of the backgrounds were quite underwhelming but the detail given to the characters really does make you feel like you’re fighting as a god against other gods. If you have played God of War’s epic battles you will get much the same feel.

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A bit sepia toned for my liking

Sound

The sound and music are really nice in this game, but one track in particular stood out for me and that would be, Yasha’s Theme. It fits so well when it is played throughout the game and honestly reminded me of two of my favorite animes from my youth: Cowboy Bebop and Trigun.

Always a perfect kickoff for blowing up beasts and fighting gods.

The rest of the soundtrack gives off the appropriate epicness of playing as a Buddhist god with lots of Eastern flourishes as opposed to the standard classical scores you get from most, “war of the ages” soundtracks.

Overall

This game would not necessarily be worth the full price on release, but now that it has dropped in price I must say I was thoroughly entertained throughout. The characters are over the top, but they are each unique enough to get you some favorites here or there. The fights are extravagant as well and everything is held together well over the eight or nine hour play time. I think most people had an interest in playing a DBZ fight scene in all its grandeur, and this was the first time in my life that feeling was sated. Capcom seemed to have had a completely self-serving time with this game and even included DLC to further the mystique of the world’s best fighters with fights available against Ryu and Akuma from Street Fighter.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Games Worth Going Back For: Journey

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Brent Hopkins

In Games Worth Going Back For we look at recent games that you may have skipped that should be picked up sooner rather than later. Today: Journey for the PlayStation 3.

Overview:

Journey is an indie game that was released exclusively for the PlayStation 3 in 2012. It was developed by Thatgamecompany, which also made two other exclusives for Sony: Flow and Flower.

Thatgamecompany is known for making incredibly atmospheric, short, and graphically intense games with a minimal yet heavy feel. Flow and Flower were two of my favorite games on the PS3, and I was ravenous to get my hands on this game. Those games each took a specific concept and made that the entire focal point of the game. This could run foul for some gamers expecting a meaty epic, but I feel like even for a single playthrough these games will always stick with you for years afterwards.

Sadly, I was unable to play Journey when it was first released, but I picked it up and promised myself I’d play through it this year.

Story

Journey doesn’t necessarily have a strong story tied to it, which is common for Thatgamecompany titles. You are a robed figure that is traversing a ruined city in an attempt to reach the summit of a mountain. Throughout the game you delve deeper and deeper into the city through sand, then water, and finally snow. Hence you are taken on a “journey,” physically as well as through history. The most interesting point for the story is that this is relayed entirely without words. The entire game is nothing but ambient sounds, with even the player character being unable to speak in any real language other than squeaks that blend in seamlessly with the music.

Gameplay

You explore the city through common means of modern-day transportation: walking, flying, and surfing. To advance further in the game, the player must “sing” to activate banners that cause various things to happen to the landscape.

These are simple puzzles and really feel more like an avenue to force the player to take in the sights that the game has hidden for you.

The game is also multiplayer, so you can tackle the puzzles and things with another player. The game doesn’t have lobbies or anything, instead at the beginning of each episode, a player will anonymously join your game and you can choose to stay together or take divergent paths towards the goal. If you complete the stage together you will continue along with one another, but if one finishes and the other doesn’t you will find yourself alone or with a new person to play with at the beginning of the next stage.

The multiplayer aspect of this game is critical to its success. I had a chance to play the first level alone and I was bored to tears by the game. It was not fulfilling in any way, shape, or form, as it really felt like a walking simulation as opposed to a game,

Since there is no communication in the game other than the singing you have to communicate nonverbally. I managed to find another person who wanted to play the entire game through and I found that if I didn’t see him or her on screen I would wait or search for them to make sure they were following along. It was a strong bond but one that was completely unspoken, like that of a friend you haven’t seen in years. This was in stark contrast to the misery I felt when I first loaded up the game. The drop-in/drop-out method of multiplayer here is completely necessary to get the true feel of the game.

Graphics

This game is stunning. There isn’t really much else to say about it, but the snow and sand effects are absolutely breathtaking and it feels like you’re playing through a photo journal at times. Hands down the sand surfing segments alone are worth the price of admission and will have you wanting to play them a few more times after the first.

Turn this on HD and just enjoy.

Sound

The music might actually be better than the graphics, and that is saying quite a bit. The music matches each level perfectly and the sound effects of your robed character meld into the music as if it were your own instrument. The songs are never annoying and set the atmosphere really well.

Overall

Aesthetically pure, aurally fascinating, and fantastic.

This is what it feels like to melt into a game.

This game contains probably two of the best hours you could spend on a console in the past two years and honestly, Thatgamecompany has compiled three games that I would recommend anyone play. If you have any friends with PS3s, buy their collection, which includes Flow, Flower, and Journey and sit down with them and enjoy all three together. If you like games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, these games are a nice way to hold yourself over while waiting for The Last Guardian‘s release.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Image: Thatgamecompany

The Need to Achieve: One Finger Death Punch

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Matt Matuszak and Brent Hopkins

In our new feature The Need to Achieve, two friends who don’t always see eye-to-eye evaluate a game they’ve both played just for the achievements. Beating 100% of a game can be both challenging and frustrating… How does One Finger Death Punch stack up?

First up on the list of games we have the dreams of attaining 100% in is One Finger Death Punch, an indie game that came out on Steam this year. The game was developed by Silver Dollar Games, which has a history of making low-budget games that tend to receive equally low-budget reviews. OFDP is the game that breaks the mold and has received rave reviews from media outlets because the concept is simple and pulled off intuitively.

Gameplay

Brent: C-
Matt: D (at best)

Brent: OFDP has you use the left and right mouse buttons to attack stick-men that converge on your character from the left or right side of the screen. One button press yields one punch, and through patterns you complete a variety of levels. This is akin to many rhythm games where memorization and rote muscle movement yield success.

The actual game itself is a bit of a mess. There are three difficulties, around six stage types, and over 100 stages to complete. You unlock special abilities (most of which are horribad) by beating stages. That means you will have to play this game a lot to get everything. This game gets old instantly and the stage variety is misleading, as half of them are filters added to obscure information and the other half are standard levels with either boss enemies or fast-moving weak enemies. This game is a grind and it loses its luster by the time you finish the tutorials.

Matt: OFDP starts off with five tutorial levels to explain that left click hits left and right click hits right. This should take 15 seconds to explain, but the developers must have thought they truly needed to teach everyone the difference between left and right. Once you get through the five tutorial levels, you get to just do the same thing 100+ more times because you’ve already done everything the game has to offer in those first five levels. You spend more time looking at where the enemy is coming from than watching the kung-fu moves your character is performing on the enemies.

Controls 

Brent: A
Matt: A

Brent: Since everything is one-to-one, the controls are as good as the user. You can’t really ask for tighter controls than this.

Matt: I’m going to agree with Brent because left is left and right is right; it doesn’t get any more complex.

Sound/Music

Brent: F
Matt: F

Brent: The commentator in this game is horrible. He uses a fake Asian sensei accent and constantly babbles during the game. Worse yet, even if you turn off the sounds they immediately turn back on when the game starts up. The music was equally grating to me and I found that I instantly turned both off. The in-game sound effects (which you can’t turn off) are OK and help you keep up with the fighting on screen. The whole game is a bit too loud though, and I think Silver Dollar Games tried a bit too hard to make the game feel and sound like a old kung-fu movie and instead just made it sound grating.

Matt: This is the worst part of the game for me; there is no actual sound volume control. You have mute or not mute in the startup, but this data doesn’t save to your local machine so it always turns on when you start the game. The in-game sound effects are OK but the basic breaking or punching sound effects just play over and over again.

Story

Brent: F-
Matt: F

Brent: If there is a story I completely missed it for the last few hours I played this game. You are a stick man and you traverse levels, beat bosses, and learn kung-fu techniques. There is no development beyond that, though I suppose the game doesn’t require it.

Matt: There is no story in this game. You are a stick man that just has to fight the same things over and over again for no apparent reason.

Graphics

Brent: B+
Matt: C-

Brent: The game is very similar in style to the stick man fighting Flash videos made popular by Xiao Xiao in the early 2000s.

We know you all remember this.

This simplicity in design makes the game run smoothly and makes you feel like you’re playing as a stick man bad-ass. There are a variety of animations used, so it isn’t just jab left and jab right. The animations are smooth, though the way the game play works you don’t truly get to take in the action.

Matt: This is a very simple 2D game. There won’t ever be knockout graphics in a 2D game. However, they did a good job with the background imaging — which you will only notice if you can look up for longer than a second before another enemy comes from the left or right. The models for your character and enemies are both differently shaded stick figures.

Achievements

Brent: F
Matt: F

Brent: This is where the money is at. I chose this game without looking at the achievement list and that was a bit of a (huge) mistake. This game has 152 achievements and around half of them are easy to get on the lowest difficulty level. The other achievements are the ridiculous, as they ask you to kill THOUSANDS of enemies in a row on an endless mode with ever-increasing speed. Doing the normal levels with 200 enemies is crap, but trying to do 7000 is tiring to say the least.

Matt: I love out-of-reach achievements, so a game that has one extremely hard-to-get achievement I can appreciate. This game has 25 extremely hard-to-obtain achievements out of 152. 17% of the game’s achievements are near unobtainable unless you play a few hundred hours, and the gameplay isn’t worth a few hundred hours.

Overall

Brent: D
Matt: F

Brent: Too many achievements, repetitive gameplay, and sound that will make you pause and step outside are too much for me to recommend this game for hardcore gamers or achievement hunters. It’s a great casual game for some time-wasting, though.

Matt: Don’t buy this game! There are better games that meet the casual indie genre that have more story in the first five minutes of game than this entire game does. I dreaded having to play this game to write about it and am upset it lowered my average game completion percentage on my Steam profile.

What is Reading at Recess? It’s (Popular) Cultural Reading

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Austin Duck

Recently, at a party, someone considering coming to write for Reading at Recess expressed her hesitation to me; she said “Austin, I don’t work in a field where we attempt to elevate things. The blog comes off as pretentious, as a bunch of guys with semi-valid credentials writing as if they actually know something, as if they have the cultural authority to write toward taste and value or the knowledge to sort out this from that,” and, I’ll admit, it took me aback.

I never really considered our project here at RAR to be about superiority or ethos-building, a kind of talking from the Silicon tower (if you will), but maybe it is. I don’t know. But I feel like, and perhaps I’m a bit misguided here, that our project is not so much pretentious (if you take a look back at the majority of the posts [mine excluded because I am, in fact, pretentious] you’ll see that most are just fan-boy diary entries) as it is an effort in cultural reading.

As you may have noticed, our title Reading at Recess has very little to do with reading in the traditional sense. Sure, I normally write about books, and Andrew Findlay writes about sci-fi, and Jon May definitely touches on the literary from time to time, but this isn’t, and has never been, a blog about books. Instead, RAR is about reading culture (well, elements of it anyway) and presenting responses to those readings (which, inevitably, are so intertwined with our particular tastes and our socio-economic positions as middle-class men who came of age in America that it’s impossible to separate the objective (Hah, that doesn’t exist! Suck it, Science) from the subjective). I don’t think, though, that this failure of impartiality or this desire to elevate our topics—video games, movies, television, or other cultural miscellany—is useless, invaluable, or altogether insensitive to the desires of our readers to access, be informed of, or make up their own minds regarding the texts (and I use text in terms of any piece of information that we interpret) we focus on. Instead, you could think of our discussions here at RAR as corollary to your own, as models for personal cultural inquiry (though that, I think, might be a bit of a self-aggrandizing vision on my part), or just as our desire to have these conversations with each other and ourselves, a kind of self-obligation we set forth toward always writing, being critical of what we see, using what we know and where we’re from to make some kind of sense of the element(s) of culture that obsess us.

And that’s what cultural reading really is. It’s engaging what obsesses you, exploring it far beyond what most people have with it, a casual relationship, and, most importantly, not interacting with it passively. At this point, I don’t read a sentence in a book without thinking why is that here? What’s it doing? and it’s not because I think I’m smarter than anyone else, nor because I want to be perceived as that guy who does those things. It’s because, at a baseline, I’ve become so involved with literary texts that I want to see what they really are, how they work, how they’re made, and why they’re made that way. Because, however they’re made (and for whatever reason), I too am made that way; I am a construction of the same language, the same culture—possibly we (the text and I) are separated by history, but in that way I am of it, a response to it, the next (or next to next) logical (or illogical but extant) step in linguistic, grammatical, philosophical, scientific, historical systems.

Sure, that sounds grandiose and crazy, and it is, but I’ve written it that way because it’s important. Because that’s how I experience it. I gave up on reading for pleasure a long time ago because I discovered that, through work, pleasure comes in the cultural (and, by extension, the self-reflexive) discovery of the real-to-me, those iterations and patterns and texts that become more than books or movies or games, that become part of my thinking and thereby reveal (if I’m willing to look) what elements of culture inform me and my decisions, what makes me up and allows me to see (a little) beyond the scope of myself precisely because I’m able to see a piece of my self’s scope.

If you’re starting to think to yourself that this project sounds very selfish, that’s because it is. But be real with yourself. You’re not reading this because you care about the content. Good content lives in straight journalism, where writing disappears and all that’s left are ideas. Go to Vox or The New York Times or something if you want that. You come to these blogs to learn about new things, movies you haven’t seen, games you might want to play, sure, but you come here, likely, not for what we’ve selected but why we’ve selected it; because we care. Because it obsesses us. Because every time we sit down to meet our weekly deadline, it’s not rote or filler or because we have to because we don’t. Each of us, in our own small, sometimes glib way, is engaged in a kind of cultural self-discovery and everything the comes with it: the biases, the crass reality, the meaningless, waste-of-time attentiveness, the existential void that opens up every time you realize your entire life is built on the words of others, TV shows, shitty commercials, and movies you were told were good but just aren’t. Cultural reading, then, fills the void, one text at a time, by making sense of it, at least from one perspective, so that we don’t get even more lost.

That’s not to say we’ll ever be found, or find ourselves, or that RAR specifically will help at all. It’s not about help, or us believing we know something you don’t. Yes, we’re writing to you because you are also we (just look at Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”), but, more-so, to discover why we write, to ask questions we don’t know the answers to, to identify (and, in identifying, attempt to come to some understanding of) the fundamental impasses, paradoxes, hypocrisies, and identifications with the (popular) cultural of our moment that seem, to us, to mean something (or not).

For the love of god come write with us.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image: NBC