185 Reviews liked by MFossy
Embraces open-world excess in a way that undercuts Breath of the Wild's more meditative appeal and turns into a far more uneven experience as a result, but all the new shit it does attempt is SO peak that it sorta evens out.
My friend Heather once said about Katamari Damacy that it's a game about interesting sensations rather than interesting obstacles and the way Tears of the Kingdom lets you interact with space, objects and materials is something I promise you've never quite sensed in a video game before.
There’s a story I heard from an excerpt of Béla Balázs’ Theory of the Film. The story goes that a Moscovian’s cousin was visiting from Siberia. It was the early days of cinema, and she had never seen a film before. They had taken her to the cinema to watch a burlesque movie.
“The Siberian cousin came home pale and grim. ‘Well, how did you like the film?’ the cousins asked her. She could scarcely be induced to answer, so overwhelmed was she by the sights she had seen. ‘Oh, it was horrible, horrible!! I can’t understand why they allow such dreadful things to be shown here in Moscow!’
‘What what was so horrible then?’
‘Human beings were torn to pieces and the heads thrown one way and the bodies the other and the hands somewhere else again.’”
She had never seen a montage before. The hand, the head, the bosom, disjointed by time in the image, the Siberian girl had seen them as disembodied. The ability to mentally situate the montage and its subjects in time and space is not an innate skill. To understand a montage, you have to learn to reassemble a body.
We are privy to something similar in Immortality. We reassemble a body of work, that of Marissa Marcel. We must do it through an understanding of the movements of cinema. The central movement in the game is the match cut, and it’s story is unveiled through the process of navigating a complex web of them. A cup, a stool, a cross, a kiss, a rose, wings, water, windows. Move through them. In a sense, the player becomes the editor, but without real control over it. These images are broadened, too. A cup may also be a bathtub, smoke may also be static. A similar thing is done in Sam Barlow’s other recent games. The Her Story system does something a lot like this, but with language. Enter a word into the search bar, it shows you five videos with that word, no matter the context. In a sense, these games are about understanding relationship between context and sign. In Immortality, however, we navigate through the image. This is why the game is made of match cuts.
When a film makes a match cut, there is typically something meant. Something is always meant with a cut, but the match cut often has its own specific meaning. With this magic trick, we signify a relation between the object and it’s corollary. In Immortality, these cuts are dense and the correlation is often superficial. A cup may be a bathtub because they both hold water, but not because “cup” means the same thing as “bathtub”. It is direct, and that is felt. You can line up every single picture of a rose, every single picture of a microphone, every single crucifix. Unmoored from context, grafted into the network of images. Metaphor melts away; through the network of cuts emerges a symbolic différance, crude and indistinct denotation. Meaning is transfigured and debased. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
A more defensive approach would view this as decay in the visual language of cinema, but it is a strength of Immortality. A character in the game briefly speaks of cubism, saying that he finds it a shame to reduce a beautiful woman's body to a bunch of squares. Immortality is sort of a cubism of the cinema, splaying out its forms. The absence of the typical cinematographic structure, both in editing and in image, challenges the immediate response we have to the image. I’m not so sure the game is fully up to embrace that project, but maybe that’s more appropriate, since I don’t know how many people will take up that challenge. The narrative and the image of these games are dismembered like the burlesque show. There is a story here about many things. There are lots of things I could have written about instead of this: masks, religion, the frequent primacy of sex in cinema, lost media fascinations, the archetype of the Wandering Jew, the purpose of storytelling. Other stuff, I’m sure. That in and of itself will be a challenge, and now, anchored to the network of match cuts, we are challenged in the same way. You cannot avoid being a structuralist. Both in image and in text, Immortality asks you to engage meaningfully and directly with the act of making meaning. The Siberian girl must learn how to watch a montage, and then she must learn how to make one.
Beeswing's immediate surface-level appeal is an artstyle that, more often than not, is not just analogue but handcrafted: pencil sketches, watercolors, cutouts, messy clay figures, along with acoustic guitar and toy piano, bring a heartfelt rendering of a childhood village to life in a way that is immediately, intimately familiar, and yet in the realm of video games, strange and bold. Yet there's a darker text to this game that aborts the risk of it being twee: sweet memories are complicated not just by the slightly bitter perspective of adulthood, but by the reality of social isolation, increasingly a fact of rural and metropolitan life. Wandering the town of Beeswing and the nearby city, interacting its inhabitants, we are constantly reminded of this fact, through conversations and vingettes (some of which are gated by somewhat obscure requirements) that range from the silly to the deeply sad.
That said, there's an unfortunate contrast between Beeswing's visual style, which speaks to the hand of a master (I've played some of King-Spooner's earlier games and they all look like apprentice work compared to this) and its writing. The game leans heavily on the latter (and the contrast between the two) to deliver its themes, but it's sort of a weak link. It's not so much that it's heavy-handed but that it often delivers mishmash of ideas, some less developed than others. The running theme of isolation gives way to hoary anxieties around morality, or characters get on the writer's own soapbox, like when a rant about the fallacy of the death of the author is placed in the mouth of a character who has no real business delivering it. It's not that these ideas couldn't possibly cohere, but that the game does little to illuminate their connectedness, or perhaps relies too heavily on mere juxtaposition.
Perhaps, given the cutout and collage-like nature of Beeswing's construction, it's appropriate that juxtaposition is its primary method elsewhere. Yet there's an anxiety I have about this game and others like it: often, when I encounter works in this space that name symptoms but not the disease, I'm tempted to go on a Situationist warpath and denounce them left and right. I kind of doubt that would be fruitful (and in any case I'm the kind of guy who's going to insist you'll learn the most about these things by reading directly about them than by consuming better art or art criticism, which is not, of course, to say the latter are useless or irrelevant), but the point is that there are real connections between the things Beeswing leaves hanging somewhat too far apart, and that there are risks involved in leaving them implicit. Showing is not ipso facto more elegant than telling; it can even be a bit clumsy, as I think is the case here. Moreover, one can paradoxically be comforted, rather than challenged, in the presence of a work of art that seemingly "gets it," and the risk is all the greater the more sensually beautiful the work. Then again, so profound is the antimony at the heart of the relationship between art and life in our divided society that I could make an equal and opposite case that "ugly," "radical" art too often merely flatters the sensibilities of its audience—but I'd best leave that for a review of Cruelty Squad and, for now, stop here.
As a P.S. to this admittedly perhaps slightly too cynical review (it really is a beautiful game with a big heart in the right place), I'll say that while it is true that my own preference leans heavily towards games that show by allowing the player to do, Beeswing (being rather text-heavy) is definitely not that sort of game, and my comments are the result of considering it on its own terms.
I remember hearing somewhere that the real measure of a game’s success is how long it sticks with you after you set it down, and if that’s the case, then Deserts of Kharak is a triumph. Despite only being something like a ten-hour long campaign, I’ve spent the better part of two months playing a mission or two a week- agonizing over every unit lost and corner of the map that went unexplored; It’s equal parts exhausting and exhilarating, tasked with commanding a fleet where it feels like every decision is on the verge of spiraling out into catastrophe.
One of the defining features of the Homeworld series is the continuity of your fleet between missions, meaning that your army stays with you- deftly avoiding much of the downtime that can bookend RTS mission design. There’s no need to spend minutes filling out your fleet as you stare down the enemy base at the beginning of a mission, and neither is there the sense that you can let the action resolve itself as you turn the tide of battle; an early game mission had me send a group of LAVs on a suicidal push that secured a victory, but saw me enter the next level with an entire control group, gone, as a result of my ineptitude. It’s a knowledge that imbues the action with a greater degree of purpose, always thinking of the best ways you could prevent loss of life and stack the odds in your favor. (And further helped by some tremendous radio chatter)
Combined with an escalating series of missions that always seem to push you outside your comfort zone and the game never slides into repetition or complacency, and without ever feeling contrived; I have distinct memory of playing Starcraft II years ago, with every mission conspiring to find some reason to hurry you along- racing to get enough resources on a lava world or outright running from a giant wall of fire. They felt like inelegant ways of getting players to play more aggressively, but Deserts of Kharak manages to handle these quite a bit more naturally- playing around with terrain and objectives, and constantly throwing curveballs right as you think you’ve got a handle on the situation- Gaalsien reinforcements coming in right as you think you cleared the map, and so you suddenly find yourself racing to find some high ground and bracing yourself long enough to establish a new front line. This variety is also owed to the fundamentals of gameplay; your base is a massive, land-based aircraft carrier and resources dry up surprisingly fast, so there’s a constant push to keep moving, making tentative ventures deeper into the desert as keep an eye out for war parties on the horizon.
I’d say that’s another point in the game's favor- that the action in gameplay feels pivotal to the action of the story. In that two month window, I tried a couple of other RTS series, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was just directing the extras in some massive battle scene, the real protagonists duking it out in the interstitial cutscenes- siphoning off all the drama in the process. Often the game’s most pivotal moments- your triumphs and your lowest moments happen in gameplay- reeling as you face some new threat or heartened as you find some new artifact that bolsters your journey through the desert. (And the downtime is well-used too, end of mission briefings giving you a small insight into the thoughts of a few key characters). The downside with this approach is that it can get a little exhausting, the strategic expectations ratcheting up with every mission, no alternating perspectives or “away” missions to let you cool down after some of the more intense battles.
I guess my only other problem with the game is its ending- which is weirdly abrupt considering how evenly-produced the rest of the experience is, with a couple of simple objectives and no future to consider, so it’s easy to play far dumber than in the rest of the campaign. In that, it’s probably a good point of reference for the rest of the game, an example of how listless the action would be if all the missions were discrete encounters where your decisions didn’t carry forward.
(And I'm writing this part a day later, but I think I need to stress that the final cutscene here feels so inconclusive, that in a different era, a big message would pop up and say INSERT DISK 2 and you'd go right into the the original Homeworld. Not a huge problem if you're planning on playing the entire series, but it robs the game of proper resolution.)
Really enjoyed this one, and I suspect I’ll probably enjoy the later Homeworld titles even more- in a year where I’ve felt mired in the past, getting into this series has been a nice reminder of the day-to-day actions that build a future.
Something you may not know about me is that I would like to be a librarian. I have many careers I’d love to venture into, but of the ones that are less fanciful, librarianship is the most prominent. And of the possibilities, I would love to be a reference librarian. There are a lot of specific reasons that I won’t get into (and reasons it may not be in the cards for me) but a big part of it is just that I like helping people, and I like helping people find things. One of my favorite things in the world is recommending things to people. The reference interview is a bundle of opportunities: the opportunity to explore the patron’s understanding of the library, to explore the nature of their interests, and to explore the vast well of human knowledge found in the library stacks. It is a beautiful thing that I would like to be a part of.
Kakureza Library, is, unfortunately, not really about this, even if it is trying to be. It’s a short visual novel that is framed around you running the checkout counter at a library. While I may come across as harsh going forward, I want to clarify that I think the game is merely mediocre. It’s a bit of a mess, but nothing cruel is in here, just my own disappointment. There are other failings here, of course: it’s plot is kind of nonsense (something about a cult and robots?), the characterization isn’t too in-depth, and it’s very poorly built and poorly localized. But none broke my heart more than realizing that Kakureza Library could never be the fantasy I was hoping for.
I understand that this game is not exactly a blockbuster hit, so I’ll explain how it works. The way you play Kakureza Library is pretty simple. Patrons come up to you, with books both to return and check out. First you click their library card. Then, you click all the books they’ve brought to you, and the game automatically checks out or returns anything they’ve brought to you. About once a day, one of them will ask you if you have a certain kind of book. Sometimes they know exactly what they’re looking for, and sometimes they only have a vague idea of what they need. So, you look through the little catalog app you have, looking for what they seem to be asking for, and you loan it to them. Depending on whether it’s what they need, your little score in the corner goes up or down. Other random non-checkout related things raise and lower the score, like some minor puzzles. If you get a perfect score of 36, you get the true ending. That’s sort of it.
I want to make a brief comparison to Papers, Please, which bears some similarities. Both essentially deal with processing people through a system. In Papers, Please, it’s the border policies of an authoritarian regime. In Kakureza Library, it’s the check out policies of a local library. But the result of these simulations are the same: by the end, the people who pass in front of you are gradually dehumanized. Now, of course, the dehumanization in Papers, Please is a lot more severe and a lot more pointed. In Kakureza Library, it is a banal one. There’s an old Mitchell & Webb skit about a librarian cruelly berating a woman as she checks out a book for her horrible taste. That she is tasteless, predictable, and dull. Kakureza Library gives you the creeping sensation that you could become him. Of course, you'd never be so cruel, right? But the humdrum goes on, a part of you could turn bitter. The old man always wants local history books. The young boy always wants comics and sports books. The goth girl always wants vaguely goth themed books. There’s little aberrations, sure. But people, ultimately, are not all that deep. They like the things they like. They know what they like, and they like what they know. They’re entitled to that, of course. But your interface with them is as simple as a series of quick clicks. It’s as over as quickly as it started, and there is not a chance for much to develop.
And this, to me, gets at sort of the root failure of Kakureza Library. The beauty of the reference interview is, in part, found in the recognition of another human being. You need to open yourself up to understanding someone else’s wants and needs. It’s not just about handing them a book. When someone comes to you with a query, when they ask you for help, you start a journey together. You try to understand what they want, what they are looking for, what they want out of the library’s resources, and what you can give them. It can take you all sorts of different places, and you rarely know where you’ll end up. They may end up with nothing, or something wildly different from what they were expecting. It’s a tour of junctures, a peek into the archive and its machinations. That journey, that process of discovery, of learning how to navigate the archive, the uncovering of the known, this is part of what makes libraries beautiful. But that never happens in Kakureza Library. You always have the exact right book for them. You always have exactly what they needed. They always need one specific book. You tell them what it is and whether you have it. You hand it to them, and then they leave.
Libraries are so much more than a silo of information. They are also gymnasiums of meaning, of meaning-making, of possibility and discovery. I want to be careful about romanticizing them, but I do not think recognizing the transformative capacity of the library is in opposition with a realistic understanding of what they are. Libraries are perfectly mundane, but are filled with possibility. It is this duality that is important. Libraries are, both fortunately and unfortunately, one of the few socialized services that most towns and cities currently allow to be free. As such, they are often havens for needs beyond just books. They have movies, music, audiobooks, games, newspapers, computers. There are seminars, readings, children’s events, workshops, and most of all, places to simply be. These are the libraries of reality: both boring and quiet, and bursting with possibility for each person who walks through its doors. While this wasn’t always the case, this is not an uncommon perspective to hear from librarians these days. When we treat a library as a simple database, we can start to treat the patrons who use it as information receptacles, like the banking model of education. They want nothing other than information, and so we shove it in their mouths. This is the worst kind of library to be in. Libraries ought be places of discovery, of dialogue, of liberation, of investigation, of development. Libraries ought not be houses of interpellation but houses of invention.
Kakureza Library wants to see the humanity in your patrons. It wants to create a world where librarians can help people and treat them with kindness, and where the people who go to the library find some fulfillment. It wants to show the libraries can make the world a better place. But its visions of the library are incomplete. The pictures it paints do not show you what happens in the study rooms, in the conference rooms, on the computers, in the quiet nooks. Because all Kakureza Library is is a game about checking out books. You’re not a reference librarian, or an archivist, or an outreach librarian, or a library manager, or even really a library page. All you really do is handle books. Out they go, in they come, like the people who hold them. When we reduce the library the check-out counter, we become the laser scanner we use there: all we see is the barcode. But the library is not a transaction.
Depression is often characterized with angst and anhedonia. I’ve heard it described as “a disease that takes away your ability to enjoy sunsets.” It’s parasitic, turning you into a walking vessel. It makes you slow, empty, unhappy, unable to do anything, to want to do anything, to find a reason to do anything. What’s talked about less is how stupid it makes you. Depression also turns your brain into mush. You struggle to muster focus and energy and end up doing awfully embarrassing things. You fall back on old habits, you develop ugly new ones. You sleep poorly and smell worse. There is a sexy and poetic version of depression, sure, but to act as if it is not also composed of skipped showers and junk food wrappers is disingenuous. Depression is just as often languidly writhing in the moonlight like a Caravaggio painting as it is watching a two hour YouTube video in your underwear as the sun rises.
It perhaps indicates the relative severity of my current darling depressive episode that I was drawn to Mech Arena: Robot Showdown. I don’t like playing games on my phone, I am not competitive, and the context I first heard of this game was during the sycophantic extravaganza that is The Game Awards. But hey. Guess what? It’s got stompy robots. And I love stompy robots. And video games, with their natural talent of alchemizing long stretches of time into a forgotten blink, are a natural fit for a case of melancholy. So I submitted to my most degenerate impulses and hit download.
It’s nothing too shocking. It’s an arena of mechs. Exactly what it says on the tin. You spawn into a level, and fight other players on teams, either with control points or a team deathmatch. This is bog standard stuff, and it’s immediately clear to me that this game is very interested in being like Overwatch. It’s everywhere, from its end-of-match medal system, to the architecture, to the design of its mechs, to the minutiae of its UI elements. Presumably, there was a design document somewhere that said “EVERYONE IS D.VA” that somehow got turned into a game.
There’s maybe a dozen different mechs available at this point, all with different special abilities and stats. There’s also a bunch of different weapons which have some decent variance. The early ones are the most boring: a mech with a sprint, a mech with a jump, a mech with a shield. You know, really exciting mechanical hooks. The mechs have two weapon slots each, which are customizable. Almost all the weapons also have an absurdly long reload period (like, usually over 5 seconds) so combat has this lovely tendency to result in two opposing players circling each other unable to do anything. I presume this could be to encourage teamwork, but uh… it’s a mobile game. Not gonna happen, hoss. (While I’m nitpicking, why can’t I listen to podcasts or music when I’m playing this damn game? That’s the whole point!) Mechs also serve as this kind of lives system; you can only use a given mech once per match/round.
The more interesting mechs take a while to unlock, so the early game is kind of dull until you get them. All you can really do is clomp around and shoot a few rounds off. Theres a pretty generous aim assist, which I guess makes sense, but it feels kinda mindless. Apparently, the game is going to be adding pilots in the near future, which maybe can give some much needed personality to the game. Once you manage to get one of the cool robots, the wackier elements make the game significantly more fun. For example, there’s this mech called Killshot that has a melee charge that does an ungodly amount of damage on a dangerously short cooldown. So I equipped a laser weapon so I can chip enemies down from a distance and then close the distance and kill them with the dash. I cackle pretty much every time I do it. It’s very silly, but silly is a good thing sometimes. I also developed a long-range sniper build paired with homing missiles that erased health bars near-instantly. I have no idea if this is balanced or the rate at which these strategies diminish in efficacy, but I would be lying if I didn’t squeeze every drop of fun I could from it and licked it up like a cat on a dish of warm milk. Because it’s just mindless stompy mech fights. It’s adequate, and at its best, it’s dumb fun. That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got.
Stop. Hold on. You probably thought (and reasonably so) that I was just describing the game that is Mech Arena: Robot Showdown to you. But you’d be sorely mistaken. Because it’s not a game about big stompy robots duking it out and shooting big guns. Mech Arena is a game about making numbers go up by any means necessary.
Stop me if this sounds familiar. Mechs and weapons have star rankings and levels. Lower ranked mechs not only have less health, but less energy, too, and thus can’t equip stronger weapons. Without that firepower, you’ll quickly find that you can’t do a damn thing in a firefight. This isn’t a game of twitch skill where you can perfectly evade and outplay an overpowered enemy. You’re a big lumbering machine, and even the spryest mechs won’t outrun bullets. There’s skill involved, sure. But the numbers game can outpace that quickly.
How do you increase their power? Well, Mech Arena’s version of Overwatch loot crates, rather than being cosmetic focused, are mostly a way to increase your power. (Even watching these boxes open reminds me of Overwatch.) There are paint-jobs and skins in there, sure, but you’re mostly getting blueprints (which are used to power up specific mechs/weapons) and other currencies (which also help you level up). You can also, of course, cough up some money and just get some of that stuff straight away, or buy a bunch of loot boxes.
You recognize it, don’t you? The creeping sensation? I’ll go on. There are like five or more separate currencies in this game that all do different things. Everytime you open the game, you’re bombarded with pop-ups that tell you about a new deal in the store you can snag. Hell, you’ll get bombarded with those offers in between matches, too, forcing you to tap the X button repeatedly before you can get back to playing the damn game. At some point, I discovered that the company that made this game, Plarium Games, are the same folks behind Raid: Shadow Legends, a gacha RPG that has quite literally become a meme because of its horrible monetization and incessant sponsorships. (If you’ve never heard of this game, you’re incredibly lucky and I envy you.) Around this time, it starts coming into focus. This is a storefront with a game attached to it, not the other way around.
Gacha games make my skin crawl. There’s something Machiavellian about them. The first gacha I ever played was Gundam Battle: Gunpla Warfare, and I hated what it did to my brain. I never spent money and didn’t get obsessive, but even still, I hated feeling how the game sunk its fingers into my life, occupied my thoughts about time. I put a bit of time into World Flipper but lost interest quickly. I have friends who mark out hard for Granblue or Fate, and while I could give them a chance, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would hate those games, too. (I don’t even really like normal VNs…) I have yet to play Genshin Impact and while I suspect I might enjoy it, the very foundation of what gacha games are, which is glorified and overly complex gambling, skeeves me out. While Mech Arena might not technically be a gacha game, the hints of gacha design are everywhere.
Still, in my depressive stupor, I fixated on a simple goal: unlock Arachnos. There was an event in the game with daily missions, essentially functioning as another free Battle Pass. (Oh, by the way, did I mention this game has a Battle Pass, too?) There always seems to be one or two of these events thrown at the player; it’s a great way of driving attachment and daily play, after all. The final prize at the end of this specific event is Arachnos, a big spider mech (four legs instead of eight, though) whose special ability makes a turret. And I’d be lying if I don’t love a spidery mech. So I worked to acquire Arachnos, in all her mystique.
But of course, that’s not how this story ends. I will not be seeing Arachnos. See, as I plucked away at these daily quests, I started to notice that there were routinely ones that instructed me to share a referral link. Now, I may have stooped low enough to put time into this damn game, but come on. Is this a pyramid scheme? I would do anything for mechs, but I won’t do that. There are seven days in the event, and five on each day. I don’t need to complete every single mission, just 30 of them. I’ve done the math. But they keep showing up. I know if 6 of these show up, I can’t get Arachnos. It’s day 6, and I see the fifth referral mission, and I know if I see another one tomorrow, my time has been wasted. And then I see the next mission. “Make an in-game purchase.” Fuck. The deal is done. Absolutely not. I’m not getting this fucking mech. The terms are clear. Mech Arena refuses to be contained to an app. It says, “What magic circle?” The game has to expand into your pockets or into your friends list. The sunk cost burrowing in my brain, I feel myself tempted to just put down a dollar or beg a close friend just to download the game for a minute. But I close the game. And I don’t open it again.
It’s at this point that I ask myself: are we gaming, fellas? Is this really what video games are? Am I to accept that what I spend an inordinate amount of time doing is so easily reduced to a frenzied parody of capitalism, embroiled so deeply in it already? That they are so easily full of cruelty and emptiness? Is this really gaming?
And the answer, of course, is absolutely.
You know, in my everlasting snootiness, it’s so tempting to give into pretension. I know I’m not alone. But it’s crucial to never forget how fickle one’s own proclivities are. Fascinations and fixations make bedfellows, leading to grotesque but irresistible obsessions. The natural extent of that, in a way, is a game like Mech Arena, an infinite series of asinine tasks resulting only in incremental advances. After all, what my depression called for was not quality, but a fixation, please, do not leave me alone with myself and my thoughts, give me something to steal time away from me. And for about a week, Mech Arena had me. I’m not going to pretend it didn’t. I have to be honest about that.
The never-ending war to establish ~Games As Art~ exposes a deep-seated inferiority complex in the games industry. So defensive, saying some games don’t “count”. But they’re not alone, either. Problematic Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies aren’t cinema, racist Ben Shapiro says rap isn’t music. How many hours are we to spend arguing what is and isn’t “kino”? How many conversations have you had where someone says in derision that something isn’t cinema, isn’t music, isn’t poetry, isn’t literature, isn’t a game, isn’t art? None of these words are assessments of quality, they are flat descriptors, but in order to elevate oneself, you can use it as if it’s a special club that only you control the entry to.
Mech Arena: Robot Showdown is undeniably a video game. I’ve heard people say, outright, that mobile games “don’t count”. Hell, I’ve probably said it too, albeit years ago. But it’s just absurd. Not only are games like Mech Arena games, they are more representative of what games are right now than anything else. I wish I could tell you that the best example of gaming is somewhere on itch.io, but we don’t live in that world. We live in a world of whale-hunters. Freemium skinnerware, multi-level marketing, and crypto-games. That’s video games, baby.
I resent Mech Arena, but I can’t deny what it is, because, barring the abolition of money, this is what video games are, and will be for the foreseeable future. As much as I wish gachapon had stayed in the realm of toy dispensers, this is where we are. Nothing about its repulsiveness is unique. It’s a synecdoche of the problems endemic to the industry. I’m thankful I am not easily made prey to these tactics, but I must always remember to recognize it. Games are embedded in our society, they seek to exploit and expand, eroding the magic circle as best they can. Video games are part of capitalism, and Mech Arena is yet another reminder to accept it. This is gaming, whether I like it or not.
I have been surrounded by puzzles my entire life. I mean this literally. My father is a bonafide puzzler. Not jigsaw puzzles; I'm talking pen and paper puzzles. His peg is wordplay. Crosswords, cryptics, anagrams, cryptograms, all of it. He has taken my family to puzzle conventions often. He's a prolific constructor, too. He's been published in a certain major newspaper multiple times and even runs puzzle hunts regularly. It gets annoying, sometimes. I don't mind the test solves he asks of us. It's the other stuff. He'll turn a simple dinner conversation topic into a riddle, a game of guessing, hamfisting puns and clues. I think in my teenage years, that frustration with parents dripped down onto puzzles. I considered them geeky, dorky, not something I would ever like, no no no. Alas, my hat is thoroughly chewed; puzzles are fun. I'm nowhere near the kind of puzzler he is, not even close, but I've come around on it. I'll toy with a crossword, I’ll knock out a KenKen, I'll give a cryptic a shot (and fail), and I'll play Wordle.
Wordle is Mastermind but with letters. It's not a complex or new idea; this has been done before and will be done again. That's not a criticism. It's just a fact. It's a slick, well-made version of it created by Josh Wardle for his girlfriend. It works. It's fun. The key difference was the ease by which you could share your solutions online. Presumably, this was a huge influence on its popularity, which abruptly skyrocketed in the tail end of 2021. Seeing people post their scores is near ubiquitous, whether you were on Discord or Twitter. It’s a fun daily distraction to toil over. The limit of guesses encourages some strategizing. On Discord, we crafted theories and ran simulations. It became a delightful little problem of probabilistic reduction and linguistic statistics.
But I’m not here to talk about Wordle, but rather what’s happening to it. Puzzles seem to be on an abrupt uptick. I have no clue why. In the past year, I've seen people I'd never expect to talking about daily crosswords in the New York Times. Spelling Bee in the New York Times Magazine is also wildly popular and served as an inspiration for Wordle. If I had to guess why, it would have to be due to the global pandemic having a lot of people down-time they would typically spend doing something else. As well as, perhaps, the NYT's strategy of pushing their Games publication. Maybe you’re noticing something.
A few weeks ago, Microsoft bought Activision Blizzard. A bit later, Sony bought Bungie. Now, the New York Times has bought Wordle. Maybe this seems unrelated to you. But I can't help but see it as part of a pattern of rapid consolidation of gaming markets. Obviously, this is a widespread issue not limited to games, or media for that matter. Mergers and acquisitions seem to show up every few weeks. Anti-trust law isn't what it used to be in the US, and companies are constantly cannibalizing each other. By all means, Josh Wardle made the right choice. He was probably losing money by hosting Wordle, and he was smart to cash out. Good for him.
The NYT did not buy Wordle because it was a novel invention. The NYT bought it because it wants to be the only thing you think of when you think of the word "puzzles". Don't think of just any old newspaper, don't think of other websites or apps, don't think of GAMES Magazine or Nicoli or even those airport pulp bricks, think of the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine only. They could have easily made a Wordle version of their own. They wanted the name and the brand recognition. They want you to remember where the puzzles are. The only puzzles. Are they succeeding?
Wordle won’t die after this. It’s going to live forever. It’s been assimilated into the Borg. “Join us or die.” Even as folks burn out on it, or it’s fad-fame withers, there will still be countless players. It’s in the New York Times, after all. Will it stay popular? Probably. To some degree, certainly. And what of the countless Wordle-likes? The leagues of distractions, too numerous to list, ranging from copies to inventive reimaginings? Will they rise above it all? Well, I’m not optimistic. As much as I’d like to be able to say I think a wave of independent puzzles will come crashing down on the shore, spreading an anarchistic jubilee of puzzles on the sands, I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s not going to happen in games, either. These moments result in flares of creativity and then a quiet march into obscurity. I’ve seen how hard it is to fight against cultural monopolies. Call it path-of-least-resistance, call it the Pareto principle, call it a process of preferential attachment, it’s gonna end up the same way: the slow oligopolization of cultural commodities with straggling indies. I’m not optimistic. I hope to be proven wrong. There’s a time for everything to come crumbling down. But until then, Wordle is fun. While it lasts.
fuck, croc, i was rooting for you. i really was. you deserved better.
the story goes that croc was originally pitched by argonaut games to nintendo as a yoshi game, as what would be the first ever 3D platformer: Yoshi Racing. miyamoto was apparently enthusiastic about the idea, but nintendo turned them down. argonaut had previously had a very close working relationship with nintendo. they helped make many of their first 3D games on the snes, including the original star fox. but things started to seem iffy when nintendo decided not to release star fox 2, which was already completed. when nintendo turned down argonaut on their yoshi project, argonaut forged forward with the idea and ended up making croc. and nintendo? well, whether or not they took the idea directly or not, they made super mario 64, a game with a similar premise and with a legacy that continues to endure, while croc has faded into obscurity and argonaut fizzled out in the 2000s. jez san, the founder of argonaut, said miyamoto himself apologized to him for how nintendo handled the situation, and that at least croc was doing well for them. but jez san felt that the bridge had already been burned a long time ago.
this firmly solidifies croc as an underdog, a scrappy and ambitious game who had its thunder stolen by one of the biggest gaming companies of all time. we all love an underdog story, i'm sure. but underdogs aren't always good at their job. and croc, frankly, isn't.
it's all so rote as to be asinine to describe: croc consists of running and jumping between FOUR COLORFUL WORLDS and collecting FLOATING ICOSAHEDRONS and saving these little fuzzy critters called "gobbos", which i can't take seriously at all, partially because its a silly name, but mostly because i once stumbled into some erotica about lesbians turning into goblins that was very intensely into body odor fetish and she referred to herself as a "gobbo" and that's all i can think about when i hear it now. the levels are trivially short if you don't go for the collectibles, which at least can make completing this game less painful. but i don't even like 3D platformers that much to begin with, and this game is maligned even among those fans.
i'm sure there a bunch of reviews on youtube or whatever that go into the particular design failures of croc. i don't really want to get into it too deep. but a note on tank controls: i think tank controls are fine. i like them. they do need to exist in a context, though. croc is a 3D platformer, which usually shouldn't have that, but i do genuinely think you could have a decent 3D platformer with tank controls. but this isn't it. controlling croc doesnt feel great, but it could be a lot worse, it's better than bubsy 3d. honestly the bigger issue is his tailwhip attack, where he yells "kersplat!!" or "kaboof!!" or "kapow!!" and pretty much never hits any enemy and dies because the hit detection in this game is terrible. for me the problem of game feel is exacerbated by everything else. it has this classic 3d platformer design, the same kind that underwhelmed me in spyro and crash, and in fact the extension of design in the mascot platformers of the previous era, a game of just "Stuff in Places". its far from the worst example of that design, collectibles are usually framed within some particular challenge or puzzle, but it’s just not enough. everything is forgettable. it instills this sense of meaninglessness to these objects and it doesn't help that along with that, moving croc around never feels great.
i know people have nostalgia for these kinds of games, but there is a very good reason mascot platformers have died out. they were always banking on the likability of their funny animals, but there's only one mickey mouse. there are some great ones, sure. but do you like mr nutz, kao the kangaroo, donk the samurai duck? probably not, and if you do, you probably stan gex ironically. because when you're banking on the character, you're not really spending much time on everything else. i dont know what most of these enemies are supposed to be, the levels mostly look the same, couldn't hum you any of these songs. but that doesn't matter. just look at the funny animal, go through 8 levels in green grass forest place collecting MAGIC GEMERALDS and then 8 levels in the sewer and then 8 levels in ice world and then the end of the game. these games lack so much personality even though that's the exact thing they're trying to cash in on. croc, my friend, i'm trying to give you a chance, i'm listening to you when you say "kersplat!!", i want you to be the clumsy yet triumphant underdog, but theres so little to care about, i dont care about the secret jewels, and every single time i save one of these little gobbos all i can think about is that goblin lesbian porn i read. how did i even find it? i can't even remember, but it was about a virus that turns people into very stinky goblins and orcs. ive got no problem with the green lesbians, i respect and cherish them. but i have so many questions. why "gobbo"? is that seriously sexy? why was it so clearly a reference to covid-19? with quarantine measures and such? how would a virus even change your bone structure? maybe it can, im not a doctor. and why did it then frame the virus as something that would project into social standing? it constantly highlights prejudices and judgements cast on those who become smelly goblins. are there unanswered issues with racial politics within its fantasy? why was it also very deliberately using an epistolary style, as if on reddit? are cockney accents for goblins supposed to be sexy? why was the stinkiness so important? are goblins and orcs particularly stinky? they were always talking about the smell, i'm not even sure what smell i was supposed to imagine. i know that's a fetish but like why? is reading about the odor enough to illicit a response? i'm not even really disgusted by it i am just trying to process it. there are so many weird twists and turns with the interiority of the characters that we see, how they respond. stinky gobby girl and her big giant smelly orc gf. im happy for them but also what. is it supposed to be a metaphor for something specific? queerness, transness, disease, disability, racism, classism, something else entirely? who is all this even for? is it for me? did i like it? i don't THINK i liked it, but i definitely found it somehow, and i definitely read it to the end, and i definitely am still thinking about right now when i'm trying to play croc: legend of the gobbos and i’m definitely considering reading it again
hellsinker: hello! welcome to hellsinker. would you like to learn how to play?
hellsinker: alright, so first things first, this is a bullet hell shoot'em'up with three unique playable characters: DEADLIAR, FOSSIL MAIDEN, and MINOGAME, plus one unlockable character. hellsinker has a unique emphasis on strategy and problem solving with a special scoring system and different routes.
hellsinker: you have a weapon, which can charge, a subweapon, and a special move. there's also a slowdown button. you can combine and time these to do different special attacks. when youre holding down fire you'll also have a SUPPRESSION RADIUS around you where some enemy bullets slow down and you can even delete some! if you get close to an enemy, you can SEAL them, which stops them from firing.
me: got it!
hellsinker: on the left side of the screen, you're gonna see a bunch of HUD info. let's break it down. first, you can see how many lives you have left. you can also earn more lives. pretty self explanatory
me: right. so if i lose them all it's game over?
hellsinker: yeah. well no, you'll get a chance to continue. but it's not like a normal continue, you only get one and it changes the game significantly, and you can lock yourself out of a continue. anyway let's get back to the bars. next from the top is SOL. SOL determines the strength of your main shot but is also your DISCHARGE gauge, so you have to balance that. LUNA just below it determines how fast you fire.
hellsinker: okay so next up is STELLA. the more STELLA you have, the more bullets enemies will fire. your score will also scale with STELLA. you can increase and decrease STELLA with item pickups, or by aggressive/defensive play respectively, that kind of stuff. you can acquire APPEASEMENT that will help you decrease your STELLA if you graze the requisite number thus spawning two OLD RELICS
hellsinker: finally, TERRA starts at 240. you lose TERRA if you die, but also if you avoid LIFE CHIPS and stuff like that. oh, also, it goes down if you finish a level. if it hits zero, as the next segment, you'll be sent to the Shrine of Farewell
hellsinker: on the other side of the screen, we have at the top your autobomb status, which can be set to ASPIRANT, SOLIDSTATE, or ADEPT. as a reminder, your DISCHARGE and Subweapon will behave differently based on whether you're holding the fire button down, the state of your gauges, etc. after that, you have the Spirit score, one of the three separate scoring systems in hellsinker. it's represented by three bars which represent the base 10 decimal digit values of your Spirit score. you can get a BREAKTHROUGH at 5200 Spirit, unless youve triggered the other BREAKTHROUGH in Kills, in which case it takes 6200.
hellsinker: there's also a Kill score, which can also trigger a BREAKTHROUGH at 2500 or 5000 kills. BREAKTHROUGH will reset the threshold of LIFE CHIPS necessary to earn an IMMORTALITY EXTEND (80+40n pts) and sets said bonus to 200. Below that is Token score, which is like the other two but has no BREAK, and is earned by collecting LUNA DROPLETS (which have inverted gravity mind you), which also slightly increases your LUNA, and DROPLETS increase in value arithmetically.
hellsinker: okay, so remember TERRA? so the Shrine of Farewell is a bonus stage boss rush but you get infinite lives. STELLA is constantly rising. there are four bosses, and one extra. your Spirit score drops to zero though. oh, also, BOOTLEG GHOST doesnt work while you're here.
me: bootleg ghost????
hellsinker: because your Spirit score is reset (m=0) you're probably worried about your score, but don't worry, you get the chance to earn your Spirit back in the Shrine of Farewell by collecting Crystals. after this, TERRA is disabled for the rest of the run, so make sure to maximize your spirit-to-crystal ratio if you're chasing a Spirit based high-score route, but its also useful if you're going for survival. hard limit of segment 7
me: wait but
hellsinker: as i’m sure you inferred by now, along with executive fire, the primary engagement of HELLSINKER regardless of which GRAVEYARD EXECUTOR you’ve selected (and agnostic of MISTELTOE configuration) is one of: α) management of SOL (DISCHARGE when necessary), LUNA, and SUBWEAPON gauges by destruction, collection, and timing β) safely managing proximity between mutable projectiles while evading needletype and other immutables γ) proximity protocol beta applied to adversaries to reduce production of danger δ) judiciously balancing STELLA with RELICS and transubstantiation of mutables into STELLA, in order to synthesize needs for evasion and for Spirit/Kills ε) maximizing destruction (Kills), Spirit, and Token ζ) achieving IMMORTALITY EXTENDS through BREAKTHROUGH (5.2k(+1k)m || 2.5k(⋅2)d) and LIFE CHIP acquisition η) again, doing all this while evading and using the proper attack protocols contingent on your EXECUTOR and/or MISTELTOE θ) managing TERRA reducing actions in order to deploy the visit to the Shrine of Farewell strategically, such as to maximize Spirit (m) prior: 1 Crystal (i) = 0.5% m1, upper bound of n = 424i (disambiguation: non-summated) ergo maximal execution miΣ(n424) = 2.12 * pre-Shrine.
hellsinker: alright! that just about covers the basics. ready to start playing?
me: i'm still working on the left side of the screen
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