Hey, remember that whole Mass Effect 3 ending thing? Mercifully, I don't plan on giving it any further attention beyond that sentence. But it did – in its less oppressively obnoxious moments – give rise to a renewed discussion about videogame endings. The general consensus? It's the point where even the mightiest fall, tumbling from a perch of lofty regard to the turgid depths of disappointment. BioShock, Fallout 3, Knights of The Old Republic II – even the most beloved franchises have proven all-too-capable of heinous back-stabbery at the 11th hour.
And those are only the standouts. Plenty of other series have committed last-second crimes both large and small, so you could be forgiven for thinking we're in the midst of an epidemic fatal specifically to fond memories. Where, after all, is your satisfaction-fueled victory lap? Why, instead, is there an angry mob waiting at the finish line, pitchforks, torches, and voices raised in a howling thunder of angry regret? Why do games seem incapable of producing satisfying endings? That's the question many gamers have been asking themselves, and they've yet to uncover an answer.
Perhaps that's because they're asking the wrong question.
When I devote time to media – whether it's a game, TV show, book, or slice of delicious chocolate cake drowned in molten frosting lava – I tend to lose myself in it. I think about it constantly. My speech becomes laden with referential jargon, and probably by pure coincidence, my friends start punching me in the throat more frequently. That's the power of a great world, though. You have to drag me away from it kicking and screaming, and even when you do, I bring a few chunks of officially licensed astro turf along for the ride.
But it's fun to be hopelessly and utterly absorbed in a place halfway across the galaxy from Real Life's day-to-day doldrums. Whether it's a million-mile-per-hour escape from reality or something that ends up hitting all too close to home, there's something downright magical about, say, wandering Fallout's wastes or selecting the “family” conversation option of every goddamn person in Mass Effect 3's entire galaxy. Things like that are, in large part, the reason I play games.
So I think I'm probably qualified to talk about why transmedia's insidious, spindly web of Facebook games, apps, iOS spin-offs, art books, and delicious chocolate cakes drowned in molten frosting lava is doing it so very, very, very wrong.
I am frightened. I am alone. I feel like there are eyes following my every footstep, stripping away chunks of my calm, collected guise as though clawing open a Christmas present. I don't think I can keep it together for much longer, but I can't run. My legs maintain a disarmingly leisurely pace, like they're trudging through a quicksand-flavored Jello mold. Will I spot a ghost first, or will it spot me? Where? When? How? I'm like a child who's afraid of the dark. The suspense makes me want to toss a blanket over my head until a Real Adult chases the Bad Things away. Unpredictability, as it turns out, is terror at its purest.
This is my third playthrough of Dear Esther, and it's the hardest hitting yet. I still haven't figured out this amorphous, ever-shifting puzzle of an island, and I don't think I ever will. Moreover, I'm not some improbable mix between a Ghost Buster, Rambo, and Wolverine. I'm not even sure if I have hands. I feel utterly powerless – all at once breathless with both awe and fear. This world doesn't revolve around me. I am not its master. I can only speculate as to what it all means and why I'm here. In a word: incredible.
Then the peanut gallery chimes in: “Wait, I can't shoot stuff? This clearly isn't a real game. Yuck.” And now we have a very, very serious problem.
I think The Darkness II's Jackie Estacado deserves an award for being more utterly screwed in a single instance than any other videogame character in history. So here's the tale of the tape: I – playing as the main character of all first-person shooters: camera-glued-to-the-main-character's-forehead – was locked in a dark, dingy room while a horde of vaguely supernatural mob goons turned my mega-mansion (and my horde of vaguely competent regular mob goons) into a gory pile of mob goop. “Mansion under attack, lol #firstworldproblems,” I could almost imagine Jackie tweeting if he hadn't also been, you know, crucified at the time.
Then one of my none-too-subtle foes wheeled a TV inches away from my eyes so as to – both literally and figuratively – rub my face in what was to come. “It's your own personal snuff film,” he proudly announced. On the screen were two of my particularly talkative underlings – beaten, bound, and on their knees, with backs mercifully turned away from the pistol pointed in their general direction. “One lives, one dies. Pick.” And I should have cared. I really should have.
But I didn't. Not in the slightest. So, what changed between the original Darkness' masterclass in characterization and this sordid tale of heartlessness and heart-eating? Simple: time.
Gordon Freeman is a coward. Or at least, he is when I play him. It's those damn poison headcrabs. As soon as they start hissing – shrouded in darkness, probably fresh off the assembly line from some Nightmare Factory – I turn into an orange-and-black blur and beeline for the nearest corner to cry in. When Alyx is around, I push her into the poison headcrab's Terror Lair and hide until she makes the bad things that can kill me in two hits go away. Meanwhile, in real life, I lean away from the screen until my spine feels like it's recently been on the receiving end of a Mortal Kombat Fatality. If you haven't gotten the picture yet, I really, really don't like poison headcrabs.
I love, however, that they exist. Half-Life 2's enemies in general are some of the most memorable I've ever encountered. In fact, I haven't experienced such a visceral reaction to any game enemy since.
My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So instead, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. Previously, I turned into a quivering pile of mush on BioShock 2: Minerva's Den and The Binding of Isaac. And now, a game that may very well top both of them: masterful indie heart-breaker To The Moon.
To The Moon made me cry. Like, eight times. And I don't mean in the “single dramatic tear meandering down my cheek” sense. I'm talking about gushing waterfalls of salty face liquid. You'd have thought everyone I'd ever known and loved acted like they never knew or loved me and then promptly died. Of a disease whose main side effect is tragic irony.
And that's weird, because I figured myself one who'd be impervious to the game's barrage of gut-wrenching sadness bullets. I mean, its two controllable (notice I didn't say “main”) characters often turn humor into a weapon of mass face-palm-worthy irritation, and – aside from largely unneeded end-of-area puzzles – there's hardly even any interactivity to speak of. You walk around and click on predetermined objects. That's it. I'm a gamer. Why should I care about any of that?
However, if nothing else, let To The Moon serve as a lesson on why reductionist thinking is Bad and Wrong. Because if I'd given the game the cold shoulder over those concerns – or even just written it off as another tear-jerking, smile-seeking indie missile – I'd have missed out on one of the most genuinely heartfelt stories I've ever experienced. Videogame or not.
My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So, for the next few days, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. Last week, I turned into a quivering pile of mush on BioShock 2: Minerva's Den, and today, I'm taking a crack at Team Meat teammate Edmund McMillen's blood-soaked solo smash, The Binding of Isaac.
The Binding of Isaac is the game that finally pulled me away from Skyrim.
Like any gamer in the target demographic of Bethesda's behemoth (read: “a human capable of drawing breath”), I pretty much sacrificed my every waking hour on Skyrim's altar. Sometimes, it was 30 minutes here or there. Other times, it was 30 minutes here, there, and everywhere until a family of mice had taken up residence in my flowing gray beard. Point is, that game consumed my life.
That is, of course, until I bought Binding of Isaac and learned a very valuable lesson: Most modern big-budget games? Yeah, they're kinda crappy.
My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So, for the next few days, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. First up, the PC version of BioShock 2's ages-in-coming story DLC, Minerva's Den. Oh, and I'm also gonna go ahead and slap a Big Daddy-sized SPOILER WARNING on this one -- just to be safe.
I shoot first and ask questions later. I'm not much of a talker. I just do what I'm told. Who am I?
Give up? OK, fine, I'll uncover my nametag. Yep, that's right: “Hello, my name is... Every First-Person Shooter Main Character Ever.” Yeah, my parents had an odd sense of humor. (If you think that's bad, you should meet my brother, Racist 14-Year-Old's Xbox Live Gamertag.) Anyway, I have a teensy bit of a problem: My entire existence makes no sense.
It's the end of the year, and you know what that means: awards! Awards for everyone, from everyone! Best graphics, best game featuring Nolan North as a ruggedly handsome scoundrel, worst “arrow in the knee” joke (answer: all of them), etc, etc, etc. Honestly, though, most of the teary eyed, speech-blabbing winners are kind of boring. For example, Portal 2: An undeniably great, but ultimately safe update to a revered franchise. Arkham City: An undeniably great, but ultimately safe update to a revered franchise. Skyrim: An undeniably great, but blah blah blah. You get the point. The following, then, are games didn't land with such a huge splash -- perhaps because they weren't so great, or maybe because they're not even new -- but will almost certainly send out ripples for years to come.
Game characters talk too much. Unless, of course, they're J'zargo.
I like shirts. I enjoy owning them, wearing them -- pretty much everything you can do with shirts, really. Which is mostly just those two things. So I recently visited a custom T-shirt website, because why not? And then -- because I'm oddly proud of my exceedingly embarrassing geekiness -- I searched for Skyrim apparel. What I discovered made me laugh like a hyena that'd recently eaten a live clown. Then it made me deeply, deeply depressed. Mere days after the game had launched, there were shirts emblazoned with phrases like “You tried mercenary work? It might suit you” and “My cousin's out fighting dragons, and what do I get? Guard duty.”
If you've played Skyrim for more than two seconds, those phrases probably haunt your nightmares -- perhaps uttered by deeply unsettling images of your disapproving father as a giant praying mantis. Why? Because Skyrim's all-too-talkative denizens bellow them every time you're within bellowing range. Dovahkiin shouts? The Voice? Those are nothing compared to these all-powerful, sanity shattering sentences. And that's a rather large problem.