Archive for the 'Spoilers' Category


Spoilers: The Walking Dead: Season 2

Zombie media is pervasive, and to many, it has run its course.  It’s found a way to lodge itself into the public psyche beginning with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  This series used an outbreak of zombie infection as a backdrop to explore and critique aspects of society Romero saw problems with: racism, consumerism, and martial culture.  It was an existential threat that didn’t carry any ideological baggage.  It was the violent deconstruction of society and culture that laid human vice and virtue bare.  I wouldn’t expect that this is something new.  Existential threats to one’s culture have generally served as the backdrop to drama.  Perhaps for my own generation, the lack of an existential threat has made it necessary to latch onto Romero’s imagined threat.  Now we use it as a backdrop for our own fears and anxieties.  We use it as the language to explore our quiet unease with the society around us.  Season 2 of Telltale’s Walking Dead uses this language to magnificent effect.

Continue reading if you’re comfortable with spoilers.

We were last left with images of Clementine left to fend for herself.  Lee is gone, and there’s no one left that’s close enough to her to provide a foundation for her survival.  It was a terrible end to season 1, that pointed to far more dreadful consequences in season 2.  Episode 1 made certain that you understood that Telltale was making good on those consequences.  She’d lost the last surviving member of her original group, had to fight and kill a dog, and been left for dead by other survivors who thought she could be infected.  While ultimately she finds herself part of a new group, there’s still little trust shared with her.  And danger still lurked close by.

Episode 2 unveils a fairly significant reason why Clementine is unable to trust her new group.  And his name is Carver.  For reasons unknown, he inspired fear in this group that led them to abandon a secure home that had supplies.  This wasn’t fear at the prospect of being raided by a rival group or by bandits.  It was fear based on a history with this man that none were willing to share with Clementine.  During their flight from Carver’s group, they happened to stumble across another group where one, presumed dead, member of Clementine’s original group has found refuge: Kenny.  He appears to have rebuilt a stable life with his partner and the rest of their group.  It’s the first break Clem has received during this season; to find a familiar face that shares a bond with her.  It’s not long before Carver catches up though, and threatens to wipe out both groups.  And you’re also reminded, even if he is a familiar face, that Kenny is a troubled person.

Episode 3 brings both groups to Carver’s compound where, over the course of the episode, he makes his case to Clementine and the audience that strength and an intolerance for weakness is key to survival and prosperity.  It is a key inflection point for the season, where the tone shifts from being about Clementine reacting to threats around her to proactively making decisions to try and create a safer situation.  It’s a terrible predicament for Clementine, who is left without people she can truly rely on.  Will she do something that could be awful, in order to find safety?  By this point, the game has made it clear what Clem’s story arc is going to be, and starts challenging the player to figure out how she fits into it.  By the end of the episode, it’s clear just how ruthless Carver is, and how unstable Kenny might be.  It’s up to you decide how Clementine should digest these developments.

Episode 4 wastes no time in putting your reasoning to the test.  The group is on the brink of being destroyed.  You’re also introduced to a new character that might offer Clem some stability: Jane.  Contrary to Carver’s philosophy of bending and breaking others to do your bidding in the name of safety, Jane demonstrates to the audience the value in staying disinterested in others in the name of your personal safety.  To her, others represent a liability to your safety.  Jane takes a personal interest in Clementine in as far as wanting to help guide her in the right direction.  Jane puts to words what the player might have recognized earlier in the season: that she’s not able to rely on those in her group.  It would appear that Jane is exactly the answer to Clem’s dilemma, but Jane is not ready to take Clem on for fear of losing her later.  To complicate things further, another member of the group has a baby, adding a great deal of pressure on the group to achieve safety and security.

By the end of the series, the remaining survivors have been pushed to their limits and are quickly dying, or becoming divided amongst one another.  Kenny has a renewed sense of motivation in protecting the orphaned baby, even though his perspective has been warped to the point of seeing it necessary to attack and practivally torment those he sees opposing him.  Jane sees Kenny as the primary threat to the group at large, and to Clementine in particular.  Jane offers to team up with Clem and then run away together.  However, this offer does not extend to the baby.  And eventually, Kenny and Jane, the two closest people to Clem, are locked in a conflict that’s going to end in one of them being dead.  It’s at this point that the player must guide Clem to decide who must survive the battle.  It’s a harrowing sequence that puts more pressure on the audience than Season 1’s climax might have.  And there’s no clearly correct answer.  Any decision here means hurting someone that cares about you.

In the end, Telltale has made a game about coming up with ways to rationalize your actions.  There is a fair bit more deviation in story lines and endings this time around.  But when there’s no right answer and all results are bad to one degree or another, the audience must be prepared to have a explanation they can live with going forward.  It’s simply a game of course.  But you’re enjoyment of the season really rides on your ability to make these decisions in a way that’s consistent with your own moral compass; assuming you’ve managed to become invested in the series and its characters.  But after the first season, it’s hard not to be invested.  Season 2 doesn’t have Lee, and the dynamic has fundamentally changed with the player being in control of Clementine, but Telltale has risen to the challenge and delivered an experience that’s of the same caliber as the first season.  I’ve been able to see three of the game’s endings so far, and each provides a thoughtful and satisfying conclusion based on your decisions.  I, myself, spent more time mulling over my choices than I thought would be relevant to the game.  I was very surprised when the game matched my level of investment.

It’s difficult to say whether season 2 will capture the same amount of attention and praise that season 1 did.  It already raised the bar for downloadable, episodic content.  But those who found season 1 to be an engaging and intense experience will not be disappointed by season 2.  And you might be surprised by what you find.

Check out my earlier posts about season 1 and 400 Days if you’d like to read more about the series.


Tifa Lockhart don’t get no respect

Tifa Lockhart

As far as overlooked or underrated characters go, Tifa Lockhart of Final Fantasy VII gets a pretty raw deal.  Much of the game focuses on Cloud moping about, and Sephiroth having “mom” problems, or the two of them squabbling with swords.  Tifa is also easily overlooked for not martyring herself as Aeris did (Aerith, whatever.)  When you do take control of her in the game, it’s mainly to act out a slap fight as the world starts coming to an end.  Of all the game’s colorful characters though, her conflict is probably one of the most compelling and believable, though very understated.

VII puts you in the shoes of Cloud Strife, a mercenary working for a resistance group named Avalanche.  Or, at least, that is your assumption for much of the game.  It’s Tifa who persuades Cloud to join their cause, even if just for money.  The two had been, more or less, childhood friends until Cloud (who was a misfit among his peers in his home town) decided to join the military (Soldier) to be like the war hero, Sephiroth.  It was Cloud’s way of trying to be accepted and promised Tifa he would be able to rescue her should she ever be in trouble.

The problem with all of those plans though was that Cloud never made it into Soldier.  He was just a Shinra grunt that ended up suffering from the trauma of “that day five years ago“,  his subsequent imprisonment with Zack Fair, and then Zack’s death (see Crisis Core).  He had utterly failed in achieving his goals and failed to protect Tifa.  Once he finally escaped, he returned to Midgar, where Tifa found him delirious and insisting he had been in Soldier and was now taking on mercenary work.  Tifa knew this wasn’t the case, but had taken Cloud in to be able to protect him.  She had no idea what had happened to him after he left to join Soldier, but she did know that the person he described himself as was actually the deceased Zack Fair.

Tifa’s relationship to Cloud has been seen as one part of a love triangle involving Aeris.  Cloud doesn’t really have a romantic relationship with either woman in the game though.  His relationship with Aeris extends more from the identity he inherited from Zack, and was characterized as an idealized situation which Sephiroth parades into and destroys as part of his false identity.  Cloud’s relationship with Tifa is more characteristic of reality – Cloud has flaws which Tifa accepts and looks past.  And that leads to what I felt was one of the most interesting parts of the game: Tifa is essentially trying to help a mentally ill friend who happens to have creepy and unexplained ties to a war hero turned mass murderer.  She chooses not to challenge Cloud’s assumptions and instead goes along with his delusion.

Tifa’s work in Avalanche ultimately overlaps unraveling what happened to Cloud.  Later in the story, however, Sephiroth confronts Cloud with the truth of what happened, and Tifa is no longer able to deny that Cloud has assumed a false identity.  It’s one of the more surprising and uncomfortable scenes in the game, and Cloud is returned to his unstable frame of mind following Zack’s death.  While Cloud is ostensibly the lead character for his relationship with Sephiroth, he doesn’t exactly play a role in the game that’s more important than any of the others.  Much of the later story concerns him coming to terms with that, but it’s also as much about Tifa bringing him to accept it and not succumb to the reunion.  And her cause for wanting to stop Sephiroth is equal to Cloud’s.

It may have been necessary to understate Tifa’s role in the game’s story initially to try and not let on to the player that Cloud has invented a new identity for himself, but it robs the game of the full impact of the scenario.  I enjoyed Final Fantasy VII very much the first time I played it, and I enjoyed dissecting it further upon replaying it.  But I think it could have benefited more on focusing on the human aspect of how the events of the game affected the characters and their relationships, rather than relying on increasingly absurd sci-fi plot devices.  It’s unfortunate that with as much attention given to the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, that Tifa remained such a secondary character to Cloud.  And while Vincent was kind of a neat secret character to unlock, he didn’t exactly deserve his own, albeit poorly conceived, game.

But hey, maybe if Square Enix ever does decide to go through with a re-make of Final Fantasy VII they’ll have the perfect opportunity to elevate Tifa’s character to something other than fan service.


So let me get this straight…

We’re going straight into the weeds.  So look out.  I beat Final Fantasy IX for the fourth time and I feel like I’m still just wrapping my brain around the story.  It’s kind of insane that it’s taken me that many play-throughs (I docked the score I gave it in my previous review) but it’s still an interesting story.  So if you’re interested in cutting to the chase of FFIX, or want to check my understanding of it, then go ahead and click through.  In any case, you’ve been warned.
Continue reading ‘So let me get this straight…’


#BoRT: Challenging The Use of Force


Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers a wide array of challenges in its gameplay, and save for a few boss fights the player is allowed to select the way that they play.  Hacking, stealth, combat, and persuasiveness are all tools that can leverage to tackle a level, but no one approach alone is the solution.  Playing DXHR is about constantly re-balancing your strategy by selecting which skills to “augment.”  And while it explicitly pushes you to work between its four “pillars” of  gameplay, there is always another choice the player is expected to make which is obscured by those pillars: how are you going to deal with the human beings who stand in your way?  Will you kill them?  Will you avoid them?  How do you plan on handling them?  DXHR doesn’t throw a QTE in front of your face and ask you to make a moral choice.  It envelopes you as you progress through it.  Your potential targets are all sorts of people – some of them are clearly vicious, others dangers, and many are innocent and just happen to be in Jensen’s way.  It’s difficult not to try and rationalize your decisions in light of the controversy surrounding your abilities.

For myself, Jensen was someone who could kill but had great reservations about doing so.  I used this as a guide to selecting the augmentations he would install.  He needed to be able to control the situation and not have his actions dictated by targets.  I reserved his lethal firepower for use against professional soldiers, and desperate situations.  I found the strategy to be an enjoyable one.  Not being able to rely on stealth, I found myself trying to mitigate threat environments by persuading as many people as I could, disabling security, and then using non-lethal force to subdue anyone left in the way.  It consumed a lot of energy along the way to use Jensen’s non-lethal take downs, but I felt it was a sound approach to the game’s challenges.

Eventually, Jensen must travel to a sea-based science facility where a world-wide signal is being broadcasted causing those who use augmentations to be driven to homicidal madness.  Jensen himself is immune to the signal’s effects at this stage in the game, so he takes it upon himself to reach the facility and disable the signal.  The problem arises, however, that many of those working at the facility required augmentations by the nature of their work.  The ending of DXHR is commonly written off as being lackluster, but I felt that it was one of the most interesting and cohesive examples of challenge in a game that I’ve encountered.  Here, when the world has fallen into chaos due to augmentation, the player is being challenged to justify the value of the same augmentation in how he or she uses them to preserve life, or concede that they are a grave danger to humanity.

In my game, Jensen was now faced with trying to avoid having to kill dozens, if not hundreds of workers who were entirely innocent.  It was the most extreme target profile the game could throw at you.  These were people who had absolute no ill-intent toward Jensen, but not only stood in his way, but were ready to try to kill you on site.  I worked my way through the facility quickly using up my generous supply of tranquilizer darts, stun guns, concussion grenades.  I exhausted my energy bars subduing crowds in hand-to-hand fighting.  And when I had nothing left, I tried to attract people one at a time so that I could use a take down and then wait until I could recharge for the person.  (Jensen can only recharge one energy cell without using items.)  Even with the aid of the super-human abilities I’d accumulated over the course of the game, the odds were still overwhelming.  And to top it all off, the non-lethal weapons I had been carrying left little room for lethal weapons.

Ultimately, I was faced with a predicament that forced me to re-evaluate the rules I had selected for the game.  I reached a bridge that was crowded with the deranged workers.  Even if I had chosen to enhance Jensen’s stealth abilities further, I no longer had anything to replenish my energy with.  I couldn’t even try to use taken downs against them one at a time, as I would be quickly overwhelmed and killed when I drew the crowd’s attention.  To my knowledge at the time, Jensen was the only one who’d be able to stop the signal, and I did have one option left.  I could hack into a turret and kill everyone on the bridge from afar.  I’d somehow managed to corner myself into having to look at the situation in terms of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, and the game had forced me to abandon my rules.  The turret cut them all down, but it was my fault.

The decision was rationalized by the notion that if I could make it through, then I would save more people.  Of course this is asking people to die based on the presumptions of one person.  Presumptions that I couldn’t be sure of, even if the people on the bridge agreed that turning off that signal, no matter what the cost, was the right thing to do.  It was murder, no matter how you choose to look at it.  In the end, given what my decisions had led to, I decided that Hugh Darrow’s message about the conspiracy surrounding augmentation was the message that needed to be broadcasted, even if it did scare people into banning this technology.  Because it actually was scary.

I realize that DXHR is just another game, and the people who were shot on the bridge weren’t going to be missed, but challenging the player to justify the narrative that they are constructing in their mind is a powerful tool that was well realized.  The impressions that the player makes in a game make it their own, and while my narrative didn’t quite make it out in one piece, the consequences of my decisions made them particularly memorable, and made DXHR my favorite game of 2011.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the January 2013 theme: Challenge.


Destructoid CBlog: Aaamaazing: The Otherworld

This month, over at Destructoid’s community blogs the theme is aaamaazing games and thrown my two cents into the mix with Silent Hill, a game that to this day still creeps me out.  A lot.  You can check out the post at Destructoid, or click through to read it here.

Continue reading ‘Destructoid CBlog: Aaamaazing: The Otherworld’


It’s over, Dr. Fetus. You win.

Are you ready to do whatever is necessary to compelte Super Meat Boy?
I give up.  I’m not even going to try to beat the last level anymore. I might be able to do it eventually if I put enough time into it, and if I weren’t a baby. But I’ve got other games I want to play, and I’m afraid that in trying to force myself to complete that last level, I will just grow to hate the game (see image above.)  The question has become: do I ruin my fun with a game for the sake of completion, or do I give up and say it was fun while it lasted?  But after I put it like that, the answer felt obvious.  Why should I drive the game straight into the ground if I’ve already had enough fun.

Most of the games I played (and loved) when I was younger I never actually finished, and I never particularly felt like I was missing out on something. I’ve never actually completed Super Mario Bros., but I don’t hold that against it.  I reached a point where I couldn’t progress any further in Little Nemo: Dream Master, but I still love that game to death.  And during my first go around in Final Fantasy VI (spoiler alert) I just quit after your party fails to save the world, you wake up isolate on an island, the only other inhabitant dies, and your character attempts to kill herself out of despair(End Spoilers) It was an exceptionally depressing twist after investing 20+ hours, though it was an acceptable way for the game to end in my mind, and that’s how I left it for a number of years.

I can only speculate that the compulsion to beat every game you play came about as the gaming community emerged online in the last decade.  No one wants to admit to being the gaming noob that had met his/her match, only to then have somebody else come along and gloat about their leet gaming skillz.  And now, most games cater to that mindset, leaving no gamer behind.  Flavor is sacrificed for inoffensiveness, or flexible difficulty.  I don’t want to come off sounding like every game should brutalize the audience, but I prefer Super Meat Boy’s aggressive style over a more muted, yet smooth experience.  You shouldn’t have to finish a game for it to have been worth playing at all.


Happy Halloween: Silent Hill 2’s Deception

[In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve put together this spoilerific post about the much loved game, Silent Hill 2.  Nothing about the game is given away until several paragraphs in.] 

It goes without saying that games are for your entertainment.  Each game is constantly trying to nudge the player in the direction of what may be most satisfying to them, but this is accomplished indirectly.  There is rarely a game where hitting a “yay-button” is actually fun to play. When things are that simple, it becomes boring.  The player doesn’t want to know exactly how they will be entertained, they want to be able to think about it, and allow it to unfold spontaneously.

Thisnudging” done on the game’s part is done with the consent of the player. But would the player want this to go as far as being manipulated, or even lied to, for something as inconsequential as a video game?  What if you were being deceived and instead of the games goal being to entertain you, it is to frighten or disturb you instead?  This can occur more often than you might think in video games.  And we enjoy them for the same reasons that we enjoy haunted houses or froghtening movies.  People enjoy being scared without ever being in danger.

If I had to guess why we enjoy being scared, I would say that it is because it’s a pretty good way to elicit a candid reaction.  You can spend your entire life getting to know yourself, and it’s a task which we aren’t always thinking about.  The difficulty in this lies with reconciling the person you are, and the person you want to be.  When you’re scared, there’s no room to think about who you want to be.  It can be a liberating experience to have the living daylights scared out of you.

Games present a convenient way to learn how we might project ourselves in different situations.  They can trick us into believing we’re doing something more meaningful than it really is, and a good game can catch you off guard, causing you to react spontaneously to something that’s entirely imaginary.  When you combine this with our own desire to be scared, an intense variety of immersion can result.  Silent Hill 2 accomplishes this in a manner that has made it in the eyes of many gamers as one of their most favorite video games.

Cast in the role of James Sunderland, you must help him to try and learn the truth about his late wife, Mary.  He has come to the town of Silent Hill at her posthumous request.  For the player, the absurdity of the scenario is overshadowed by James’ desire to see Mary again.  He clings to the desperate hope that he may get to see Mary one more time.  His “I got a letter” speech grabs the player’s sympathy, and if you buy his opening remarks, it never lets go.  Even if she isn’t there, you still have reason to help him through what looks like a difficult time, in a dangerous town.  Or you might just be curious to know more about their relationship and why he’s so intent on trying to find someone who is already dead.

You navigate the misty depths of the town.  It is abandoned, save for a few disturbed individuals who don’t appear to have the better sense to leave.  It’s never clear what had happened to the town, but there are arcane references to its past that have been scattered about, many times in the form of puzzles.  It takes more and more effort to move further into the town.  Some buildings and streets have been destroyed, and you are forced to traverse derelict buildings.  The dangers emerge starkly from the fog as you are being stalked by very malevolent creatures.  It is isolating, but James never questions what he is doing there, and never stops to think why Mary would select this town.  You do though.  It could be that he is just that devoted, maybe desperate, to see her again, but it doesn’t feel right at all.

Slowly, corrosively, you are given reason to believe that the nature of James’ grief is of a very different variety.  Lust, fear, doubt, and selfishness begin to creep into the story.  A doppelganger of Mary follows him around the town, trying to tempt him into believing that she is who he really wants.  And James gives indication that maybe it’s true.  The focus shifts from the pursuit of Mary to James himself.  The oddities of the situation are too numerous to ignore.  Other characters that have been drawn to the town call his bluff.  They are all guilty of something, and had come to terms with their own wrong-doings, with the exception being James, who has claimed to be entirely innocent throughout the journey.  His actions betray his own uncertainty, as well as the player’s.

James is not well, but he’s the protagonist of the story.  The player needs to reconcile what James has shared about himself with what they are learning about him.  Continuing to play becomes a passive moral choice: should the player continue to help someone who has probably done something terrible?  Without knowing what exactly he had done to be summoned to Silent Hill, the player is placed in a very uncomfortable situation.  It is far more uncomfortable than just passively watching James, as if he were a character in a movie.  The truth is only revealed through the concerted efforts of the player.  There’s no closing your eyes and waiting for it all to be over.  Completing the game requires an uneasy closeness to James Sunderland, who may accept responsibility and seek forgiveness, or he may continue to dig deeper into his delusion.

Your sympathy is turned entirely on its head when James finally acknowledges that he is not there out of love for his wife, but for the guilt of knowing that he had killed her out of his own selfish interest.  Her disease had become a burden in his life.  Even while he still loved her, he was so overwhelmed by the impact she had on his life that he had snapped and never recovered until now.  It is one of the most unsettling challenges to the player’s investment in a game character that I’ve ever seen.  By this point, you may be horrified by the truth, but still not repulsed enough to quit helping James either.  The player’s investment in his journey is not easily set aside, and they may be disturbed to find that they may still sympathize with him.

The climax in this dissonance between the player and the game culminates in James’ final confrontation with Mary (depending on what you’ve done, it can be Maria instead.)  She attacks him in what could only be what James had projected she had become in his mind.  After crippling the monstrous form she had taken, you are forced to adopt James’ crime as your own. The game waits for you to strike the final blow against Mary/Maria before the game ends.  There is no longer any threat to James.  This final moment of game play is the last step in James’ (as well of the player’s) acceptance of the truth.  It is a profoundly disturbing moment.

The resolution that follows is determined based on how you’ve directed James through the game.  While some of the conditions for these different resolutions are a bit nonsensical, their intent signals how the player is rewarded (or punished) for their sympathy for James.

  • By helping him to accept the truth and to maintain a positive disposition, James will come to grips with what he’s done and grant Mary her wish that the character Laura be adopted.
  • If the player lets James show preference for Maria, a manifestation of his own lurid desires, then James will leave with her instead, only to have the same disease as Mary emerge in Maria.
  • If James is allowed to suffer a great deal of damage without healing, then James falls into despair and ends up killing himself after his final conversation with Mary.

It is a very affecting game for those who are drawn into James Sunderland’s emotional trap.  It forces the player to confront feelings they would have never imagined having to take on.  Silent Hill 2 wasn’t popular for it’s combat and game play mechanics.  But it really stuck with players in how it tricked them into being complicit in James’ murder of Mary.  James is a character that would be outright rejected if the truth about him were known upfront.  But by the time you understand, you can’t as easily express disgust for him without showing disgust for yourself as well.  Silent Hill 2 is unique among games, and even other Silent Hill games, for it’s brand of storytelling that crawls under your skin, but still manages to compel you continue.  It’s never “fun” to play, but it’s ability to manipulate the player’s expectations makes it nearly impossible to turn away from after you’ve been ensnared.

James Sunderland

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