Monthly Archives: October 2015

Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water has arrived!

So this turned up on my doorstep this morning.

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It’s quite strange to buy a Wii U game with ’18-rated’ emblazoned all over it. It almost feels naughty.

I’m mega impressed by how much you get in the collectors’ edition, check it out:

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Look at all that: a poster, postcards, art book and steel case… oh and a cuddly Yoshi, but that just happened to be on my table. The poster is double-sided too!

Here’s what’s on the other side of the postcards:

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I’m really impressed with the art book, it’s truly a beautiful thing to behold… although I’m putting it to one side for now for fear of spoilers.

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Can’t wait to play this game! Hopefully I should have some time on Sunday evening – I’ll let you know how it plays.

Toodle pip!

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Syndication: Assassin’s Creed needs to be less euro-centric

AC_logo

History is a sensitive topic to approach with me.  No, I’m not a denier of the holocaust or anything quite so dramatic or silly, rather I find the lens we tend to look at history through to be a tiny bit skewed.  From the outset I find it a tad odd that Australian history wasn’t taught in schools down here until the 1960’s, but perhaps even more perplexing is that what replaced it is distinctly european-centric, or to use a term that makes me blood boil, western.

The Assassin’s Creed series has been diverse in its representation of history, venturing deep into ‘modern’ human history, from the crusade-era Middle East in the first game to the Victorian era England in Assassins Creed: Syndicate.  But despite its best efforts to represent all creeds and cultures, it too has followed a distinctly western story arc, only really daring to venture into moments in history where Europe has been at front as centre.  Even when it has ventured beyond Europe’s borders – the Crusades, the American War of Independence – the cogs of the colonial powers were there ticking away in the background.  to date it has largely been a story that stems from the origins of England’s religious imperialism in the Middle East.  They’re nice little historical points in time, but there’s nothing that makes them any more globally significant than anything that happened in other parts of the world. Parts of the world like Asia.

Western culture is, despite its focus on multiculturalism and diversity, a teensy bit racist (for want of a better word).  The games industry is no different in that respect, taking a distinctly narrow-view on cultural and geographical boundaries, largely due to our own historical relationships.  Japan, for example, while not the first Asian nation to engage in diplomacy or trade with the western world, was arguably the first major East Asian nation to openly embrace european style cultural ideals, while China had a long standing history of trade with European and American powers, but much in line with its age-old view that it was the Middle Kingdom surrounded by barbarians, never gave way to Western ideals in the same way as its neighbour.  This has long defined our political and philosophical alliances in that region of the world.  Even in the games industry even when people refer to the east, as it were, we refer to Japan.  An eastern-developed video game is only one developed in Japan.  A Korean game is one that is trying to be Japanese.  And China is just a straight copy of what everyone else is doing. In some ways most westerners sees Asia as Japan and then the rest, a view that doesn’t do the cultural vibrancy of the area justice.

Take Korea for example, a country that is not only the 11th biggest economy in the world, but achieved that in the short space of a few decades. But even before that Korea was an intellectual powerhouse, held together for centuries by various iterations of confucianism, that informed everything from its social structure to its legal system.  Even its oldest University, the Sungkyunkwan University, was founded on confucian values of “Humanity, Righteousness, Propriety, and Wisdom”.  So how Korea, a nation of central importance in East Asia both intellectually and in how it shaped that region of the world, gets lost in the shuffle is almost unforgivable.  A nation that for much of its history has fought occupation from its larger neighbours in Japan and China, that has fought to maintain its fascinating cultural identity and history, is something worth standing up and taking notice of.  Turns out though that wars for cultural ideals and imperial supremacy were also playing our in other parts of the world in much the same way they were in Europe.  And Assassin’s Creed is the perfect vehicle to grow that awareness of just how central Korea has been to the history of the modern world.

You see the beauty of Assassins Creed is its versatility tells an overarching story of a war for cultural supremacy. It is a boundless story of cultural and idealistic imperialism. The format, too, is quite simple: there is an aggressor and a defender. Real life history fits this ‘pro forma’ rather nicely, as it turns out, as human history was plagued by conflict through both conflict, and the more subtle conflict of ideas.  Or in some cases the perfect storm of both.  In the context of Ubisoft’s world they have managed to squeeze their overarching narrative of a war on ideals into a significant period of cultural enlightenment (the Italian Renaissance), of revolution (the French Revolution and the United States War of Independence), and of faith (the Middle Eastern Crusades).  It is far reaching in terms of time periods, but for anyone with even an ounce of knowledge of European history, it doesn’t take a genius to connect the historical dots.

With the historical preconditions required to throw the Assassins and Templars into conflict being so malleable; evolution, revolution or enlightenment; it’s not hard to see that Korea itself has had its fair share of both in its long history.  As recently as 1945 Korea was occupied by the Japanese, bringing to an end the long-lasting Joseon period and the enlightenment it brought with it, who engaged in something of a systematic destruction of Korea’s own cultural identity and heritage.  Even now Korea struggles to identify and proliferate its own cultural identity.

But Korea has also had periods of significant enlightenment brought on by shifts in social expectations and ideals.  Right from the onset of the 500 year Joseon period and its confucian foundations the nation has been in a constant state of social change.   Even the introduction of the modern Korean language, Hangeul, by King Sejong the Great was intended as a great social equaliser to improve literacy amongst all classes, was wrought with opposition from Confucian scholars of the period.  Based on his own confucian ideals, which has their origins on mainland China, scholar and Minister Choe Manri wrote in 1444:

“Within the Chinese realms, though customs may differ, but the script never deviates because of the dialectal speech. Though western barbarians such as the Mongols, the Tangut, the Jurchens, the Japanese, and the Tibetans all have their own script, but it is a matter of being barbaric and does not merit consideration.”

This sort of struggle of ideals persisted for centuries, given rise to by the factional system of Joseon politics, which in a rather progressive way by the standards of the time arguably prevented totalitarianism and control of one political power.

Even more recently the nation was fundamentally changed by the erosion of power of the trade unions, who to that point, had sustained significant economic and social power, mainly through their opposition to military-style governments that held power in South Korea right up until the free election held in 1987 which saw Roh Tae-woo come to power who paved the way for the modern economic powerhouse the Republic of Korea is today.  In effect there is a bounty of historical material and settings in Korea’s history that could be plundered for use in historical fiction, spanning all the way back to the 14th century through to modern day.  Korea may not have the profile of Japan or the elusiveness of China, but Korea certainly has earnt its historical chops.

The beauty of the Assassin’s Creed series is how versatile it is how easily it can fit interesting historical settings into its overarching world.Korea quite simply is the perfect vehicle to carry Assassin’s Creed’s narrative of the challenge of ideals. I can see it now, a hooded Seonbi perched atop Dongnaeeupseong Fortress in Busan, guided by the strength of his conviction for confucian philosophy.  Or a female fighting the declining status of women in Joseon society.  Or a Korean nationalist rising against the annexation of his country by the Japanese. The possibilities are endless, and for cultural awareness and social cohesion, understanding of one of the world’s great nations can only be a good thing.  Even if the means of disseminating that information is through popular culture.

SyndicateA_C

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From The Armchair: Bring On The Scares

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums!

It’s been an inordinate amount of time since our last tete-a-tete, but you can blame this dearth of communication on the heavy mantle of fatherhood, which I now carry proudly across my shoulders. As such, the lightweight blouson of gaming has been left hanging on the neglect peg, although of late I’ve had occasion to don the casual-gaming bobble hat from time to time – specifically, I’ve been ploughing my way through Pokémon Shuffle quite shamelessly, though it pains me to admit it.

Back when the game came out, I was pretty damn rude about it, claiming it showcased the very worst of free-to-play models. I still maintain that this is true – ‘pay to win’ is completely the worst way to approach free to play – but the game itself is a lot of fun, and the way that it rations hearts (read: ‘lives’) has actually worked well for my new circumstances. I often find myself with only the odd ten minutes here and there for gaming in between work and looking after Merriweather Jr, which is just enough time to run through my five hearts and put the game to one side (I’ve yet to actually spend any money on it). Nowadays, the shorter a game is, the better.

I’ve also been playing a lot of Super Mario 3D World and Yoshi’s Woolly World, too – both are perfect for quick bursts. And any longer gaming stints I’ve been able to wangle have been put into Code Name STEAM, which I’ve been thoroughly enjoying now I’m used to the strange mix of real-time and turn-based elements, not to mention the odd but clever choice to not include a map.

But the game I’m really looking forward to playing comes out next Friday – Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water for the Wii U.

Project zero maiden of black water screenshot

It’s been fascinating to see how the game has completely divided the critics: EDGE magazine rewarded the game with an 8, high praise indeed from the famously harsh publication, whereas Eurogamer emphatically urged readers to ‘Avoid’ the title. I’m quietly confident that I’ll like the game, however: I’ve been hankering for another ‘proper’ survival horror title ever since finishing ZombiU back in 2013, and I’m disappointed with the action route that the Resident Evil series has taken of late – put it this way, Umbrella Corps has failed to set my hype gland a-pumping.

I’ve never played a Project Zero game (aka Fatal Frame in the US), but I love the idea of hunting for ghosts with nothing but a camera, and the Wii U’s gamepad seems perfectly suited to doubling as a spirit camera. I’ll let you know how it goes after sampling the game over Halloween (and no doubt scaring myself silly while I’m at it). The collectors’ edition should be arriving on my doormat this Friday, all being well…

Toodle pip for now!

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Review: Pokémon X

X_EN_boxartI seem to always be way behind when it comes to the Pokémon franchise. The original games, Pokémon Red and Blue, passed me by on their European release in 1999 – I think at the time I dismissed them as being ‘for kids’ (I was at university at the time). But by the time Pokémon Ruby had come out for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, I’d gotten over myself somewhat. Yes the series is primarily aimed at children, but the mechanics underneath are far from childish – there’s a robust and complicated battling system here that can take years to learn and master. It’s like watching Toy Story – enjoyable for kids, but there’s a lot thrown in there for adults to like, too.

I picked up Ruby a while after its release, and it made me finally realise that all the fuss is about. The compulsion to hunt and capture the hundreds of pocket monsters is strong, the battles are a strategic masterclass and the aesthetic has a simplistic beauty. I was hooked. I spent many hours hunting through the long grass in an attempt to find the rarest Pokémon, and I happily explored the huge game world laid out before me.

The best bit about Pokemon X is the newly enhanced graphics for the battles, which look gorgeous.

The best bit about Pokemon X is the newly enhanced graphics for the battles, which look gorgeous.

But by the end I’d started to run out of steam. The final Elite battles are arduous affairs, several times more difficult than anything I’d faced previously in the game, so they required a lot of tedious grinding to enable my Pokémon to compete. One of the series’ flaws is that if you want to change up your main team, then training a new Pokémon can take absolutely forever, which limits your ability and will to experiment with different line ups. As such, you’re more than likely to stick with the same old Pokémon squad for the whole game, which can get a little dull.

Also, the plot is practically non-existent. You’re given a Pokémon by some professor and head off to… well I’m not sure why you head off. It involves rogue Pokémon trainers or something, although to be fair, surely all Pokémon trainers are a bit rogue – the Pokémon games are essentially cock fighting but without the gambling.

Skip forward a few years, and I picked up Pokémon SoulSilver for the DS a long time after its release (review here). In many ways it was very similar to Ruby, just with different Pokémon and better graphics. It had the same strengths and the same tiresome flaws. The Elite battles were a similarly epic slog – so much so that I stopped playing the game after I’d finished the last one, even though the whole region from Red and Blue opens up after you complete the game. I’d had enough.

Which brings me on to Pokémon X, the third Pokémon game I’ve played (again, a long time after its release) and one of the two entries in the sixth (sixth!) generation of Pokémon games (not including all the remakes and spin offs). And it’s the same. It’s the same game again. You could basically copy my review of SoulSilver and paste it here instead.

It did begin to grab me an hour or two in – the mega evolutions are a nice touch, even if they’re not used enough, and the old compulsion to “catch ’em all” is still there, although diminished with time. Crucially, there are simply far too many of the blighters now, so that catching them all is in no way a realistic prospect, unlike when there were just 150 or so of the damn things – an achievable target.

Also, a lot of the new ones are frankly crap. A floating set of keys? Come on.

KlefkiCredit: foolishfox via Reddit

Towards the end of the game, not long after I’d captured a Pokémon reindeer that looks suspiciously like the forest spirit in Princess Mononoke, I just gave up the will to carry on. The wafer-thin ‘plot’ was sending me to sleep (just because a game is for kids doesn’t mean the story has to be simplified to the point of stupidity), and I was aware that the Elite battles were no doubt coming up, which in turn would mean possibly hours of grinding. The same old things I’d done twice before.

I ejected the cartridge and sold the game the same day.

I remember reading somewhere that Japanese games tend to champion iteration over innovation when it comes to sequels. There’s some unwritten rule that Japanese audiences enjoy the familiar but with tweaks to the formula, which is why there are more than a dozen broadly similar Dynasty Warriors games and why every other JRPG seems to start with a destroyed village. I don’t know how true this statement actually is, but it explains why the Pokémon games have barely changed since their inception – and why they are unlikely to change in the future.

But until there’s some serious innovation in the series, a brave reboot that addresses the series’ flaws and gives a serious boost to the simplistic story and characters, then I’m out.

No more fruitlessly hunting through grass for rare Pokémons for me. I'm done.

No more fruitlessly hunting through grass for rare Pokémons for me. I’m done.

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The game about the internet before there was an internet

I’ve been a big fan of the work of William Gibson for a long time, but it was only recently I found out that his first novel, Neuromancer, was turned into a video game back in 1988. I found this especially interesting because Neuromancer (and its short-story prequel of sorts, Burning Chrome) essentially predicted the World Wide Web by having hackers navigate “cyberspace”, a phrase that Gibson coined and that would later become a synonym for the internet.

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So, essentially, there was a game about the internet before there was an internet (well, before the World Wide Web at least). One of the first things you do in the game is download money from your online bank – a feat that wouldn’t be possible on a real-life computer for many years to come.

But the story is more interesting than that because Gibson’s vision of cyberspace is more like virtual reality than anything else – so perhaps he did more than predict the World Wide Web, perhaps the real cyberspace will only come about once VR has reached its full potential. If that ever happens…

Then there’s the connection between Neuromancer the game and Timothy Leary, the notorious LSD researcher who spent the 1960s evangelising the effects of psychedelic drugs. Leary’s idea of how the novel should have been turned into a game is far more interesting and bizarre than the product that eventually came out, featuring artwork by Keith Haring and appearances by Grace Jones and David Byrne, but sadly only scraps of artwork and notes remain.

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I wrote up the full story for Kotaku UK, and it was a particularly interesting one since when I began I had no idea of the Timothy Leary connection. My plan had been simply to write about the 1988 Neuromancer game, so it was fascinating to find out about the game it could have been, Grace Jones and all. I also played through some of the game while researching the article, and I have to say it’s incredibly frustrating by today’s standards – thank god there was a guide on Gamefaqs to save me getting constantly stuck. But it’s also packed full of great ideas – I particularly liked the Nolan Bushnell reference in the “House of Pong”.

Click below to read the full article:

The 1980s Game That Predicted The Internet

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A visit to a real-life Fallout Vault

Back in the summer I found out that there’s a decommissioned nuclear bunker not far from where I live in Edinburgh, just at about the same time I heard the announcement of Fallout 4. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to write an article on what life in a real Fallout Vault would be like – as well as a good excuse for a day out.

The entrance to the bunker is disguised as a farmhouse.

The entrance to the bunker is disguised as a farmhouse.

The bunker’s owners were kind enough to let me in for free, and I spent an enjoyable morning on one of the hottest days of the year wandering around underground, fascinated and appalled in equal measure. It still boggles my mind to think of how close we came to nuclear annihilation – close enough for the government to deem it necessary to build a network of huge regional command bunkers anyway. It’s even scarier to think that World War III could have kicked off due to a faulty missile detection system.

The sloping tunnel down to the bunker. The kink at the end of the tunnel is to deflect the force of a blast.

The sloping tunnel down to the bunker. The kink at the end of the tunnel is to deflect the force of a blast.

So, what would life have been like in a real Fallout Vault? Pretty damn horrible, as it turns out. Even though the Scottish bunker is the size of two football pitches, it would have been a squeeze to fit the allotted 300 people in there, and everyone would have had to share beds by sleeping in shifts. I imagine it would get pretty stinky pretty quickly, even with the state of the art air filtration system. More to the point, morale would have been incredibly low, as the inhabitants would be all too aware of the utter devastation in the world above – and then there’s the risk of disease, along with the limited medical supplies. Definitely not as much fun as the video game, then.

Check out the finished article below:

Inside Scotland’s Real-Life Fallout Vault

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Post-democratic capitalism and government acceptance of social inequity

RememberCapcomRemember Me is at its heart a depiction of post-democratic capitalism.  Set in Neo Paris in 2084, the story is as much about providing a word of caution about our world as it is, with the fight against what is effectively corporate slavery put right at front and centre of main protagonist character Nilin’s story.  The story itself is premised on a terrorist group’s fight against mega-corporation Memorize’s growing control over the population through its products aimed at ‘commoditising’ people’s memories, and the addiction the consumption of these goods are services causes.  And while it is a unique premise, resulting in some truly excellent sequences, its tale is a greater one about what may become humanity’s next great challenge in the breakdown of our fundamental social and economic structures.

I’m heartened by the fact that, in most games that deal with the subject, the breakdown of democratic capitalism is represented by a proportionate breakdown in social equity. We know that there’s a growing gap between the rich and the poor, best represented by the Lorenz Curve, and on top of that a growing underclass of people who may never escape poverty because of increasing incidence of the phenomenon underemployment.  In 2014 the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that casual and fixed term workers comprised 40 per cent of all employed persons in the country, up 5 per cent from 2013.  As a society – nay a world – our wealth has grown exceptionally since industrialisation.  But sadly   Capitalism is a great system, but taken to its extreme and left unregulated, it faces the same problem any other failed economic form has.  Australia – like many western-style democracies – has its problems but we’re lucky that both our governments and our societies share a relatively common goal: that is to reduce social inequity.

Growing up in a developed western-style nation, I like many others take fore granted the relative safeguards and stability that our government provides.  Sure there are bad eggs – there always will be – but the checks and balances a transparent government keep .  Having worked in regulated industries for the better of my career, I know first hand that one of governments’ central roles is to stay one step ahead of the corporations, and ensure that the freedom our systems allow aren’t exploited.  If we don’t that’s where issues of equity – not to be conflated with equality – come in.  Social inequity isn’t new, and capitalism has been the enemy of the people, particularly the economic-left.  But if there is any truth to the post-crisis western world  games tend to paint the picture of, the overwhelming prominence of capitalism is and governments’ willingness to allow its rampancy is a central theme.

Remember Me is an excellent tale of this dynamic, depicting a world where government has been rendered either irrelevant or helpless, and corporations have been left to fill the void.  In the real world we walk a fine line between the over-creep of Government power, and the increased scope of influence of corporations.  The vision of a futuristic Neo-Paris created by Dontnod is a stark reminder of what can happen if that balance is thrown off.  What results – the surveillance state, the reduction of the value of human life, the oppression of the masses – is truly depressing.  It may seem far fetched but in some ways it is a stark reminder of the value our personal information is to the corporate world, but perhaps more importantly, how important it is for governments to regulate it.  Sure, the technology in Remember Me to extract, alter and sell memories isn’t currently feasible, but through the careful mining and correlation of the cornucopia of information we give to business on a daily basis a picture of our lives and a virtual recreation of our ‘memories’ becomes feasible.  Suddenly it’s not a far stretch to imagine a world controlled by corporations, and while often ignored by the masses, legislation like Australia’s Privacy Act 1988 becomes of central importance to our future.

But what is perhaps most stark is how the rise of corporations as a result of the almost boundless control of information has had on inequality within society.  Bubbling under the surface is a story of just how little life is worth when the only way to measure something is through some semblance of monetary value.  How much is a human worth is the age old question, and it’s the sort of question that the conscience can never quite grapple with, even when a figure it placed on it for life insurance or compensation purposes. And then of course there’s the undercurrent of a commentary on drugs – for which  which acts as the catalyst for much of this broader discussion of social decay and who should pay the social cost of the production of goods and services.

What is more terrifying is that the Government, in whatever form it takes, seems to have accepted the wealth gap as inevitable, accepting that humans are both slaves to the wages to their own vices.  Someone’s net worth should never be a precondition to a either a right to live or a right to access essential services, but in Remember Me, this is very much the status quo.  Slums are commonplace and death and exploitation of the poor by the rich is sadly the social norm.  As barbaric as it seems to many people, including thankfully most people living in Australia, this is a phenomenon that isn’t confined to fiction.  Remember Me paints a world left broken by deep recession, subsequent civil war, and a sustained breakdown in society.  But a question of causality, the old adage “what came first the chicken or the egg””, is a question worth asking.  Because to use an equally cliched saying, “Rome didn’t fall in a day”, and we will have no idea how close we are to social collapse until we’re looking over the cliff-face.

I believe in the capitalist system, but by the same token, I believe in the importance of socialised government services.  I believe in Government regulation.  I believe in social conscience.  Remember Me tells the story of a world gone wrong, not just because it’s been ravaged by war and invasive technologies, but because governments have started to accept social inequality as the norm.  Capitalism won’t destroy humanity but the unwillingness of government to admit its failures just might.  Particularly when it’s what makes us intrinsically human – our emotions and memories – that is being corporatised  And in that way, while it may be a far-fetched story, Remember Me’s premise is well worth remembering.

Remember Me is just one game tackling important issues of social justice.  Killzone: Shadow Fall touches the particularly relevant issue of human displacement and refugee settlement. 

RememberMeScreen

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