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Remembering Binary Domain

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Yakuza Team’s Binary Domain hasn’t made a lasting impression. The third-person shooter garnered favourable, but not glowing reviews upon its 2012 release (the PC version holds a 68 on Metacritic), but it seems to have been largely forgotten in the years since—a shame for something that, however imperfect, deserves far more attention than it’s received.

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Why Bother Playing an Online RPG?

whatlevelI think I understand the fundamental appeal of online role-playing games (or MMORPGs if you like unwieldy acronyms). There’s a definite attraction to the idea of embarking on some grand adventure–the kind traditionally offered through popular offline series like Final Fantasy or Dragon’s Quest–while engaging with other players at the same time. The dozens of hours spent fighting monsters can be made less lonely online. Games that are sprawling and time-consuming turn from solitary to social activity when other people are thrown into the mix.

Despite understanding the draw of this design on a theoretical level, I’ve still never managed to get more than a handful of hours into an online RPG and remain invested. The process of building up a character–earning new equipment and skills-in these games has always seemed unnecessarily convoluted. The stories of those I’ve played have been uninteresting. Instead of presenting the kind of fiction that encourages long hours of exploration, they seem content to entice players with the dangling carrots of experience points and always-close level ups. None of this is what I look for in games. But, still, I’ve always been fascinated by the online RPG. I’ve always wanted to understand what keeps players returning to them.

So, I took two recent, apparently popular, and, most importantly, free games for a spin to try the answer the question: why bother playing an online RPG?

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Submerged and Collectible Storytelling

Submerged2The collectible is a staple of videogames. They’re scattered across maps, offering a little, typically optional incentive to further explore the environment, solve miniature puzzles, or otherwise increase the time spent playing a game. Because most collectibles are usually pretty disposible–extra scraps of text or, in the most cynical instances, nothing more than quota-filling glowing objects–they’re usually pretty safely ignored.

Uppercut Games’ Submerged attempts a subversion of this by centring its design around what is essentially a prolonged exercise in merging story and collectible hunting. Read the rest of this entry »

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BioShock, Again

Divers2K Boston’s BioShock came out in 2007. In the nearly ten years that have followed, mainstream, big-budget videogames haven’t changed as much as might be expected. This isn’t all that surprising, given that BioShock is the rare game that manages to marry (relatively) lofty narrative ambitions with the sort of mechanics and storytelling style that appeal to a wide-scale audience. It’s a summer blockbuster with something to say–serious enough about delivering its message that it gives an aura of importance while also full of the kind of action and plot twists that make an experience engaging on an immediate level.

Given this, it makes a lot of sense that BioShock casts such a long shadow.

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Sylvio Finds Horror in the Unsettling of Reality

2015-06-12_00004The first level of Apostrophe’s Sylvio begins with an upbeat pop song playing over the camera’s long, slow pan of a reddish nightmare scape. The music is a surprising change of pace from the introduction’s breathy monologue and Carpenter-esque keyboard drone, and it doesn’t last. As the view fades out, replaced by a chapter opening title card, distant wailing and the reverberations of some industrial hell-piano increase in volume, eventually overtaking the cheerful guitar strumming. This effect–the gloom of atonal distortion drowning out glimpses of reassuring structure–is Sylvio‘s central motif. It is horror that understands that, more than anything else, disorientation and confusion spark the most primal fears.    Read the rest of this entry »

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Bloodborne and the Battle Between Mystery and Rationale

LighthouseFogSomething like gods exist in the world of From Software’s Bloodborne. They’re hanging out in ruined chapels and atop castle walls, often just waiting for the hapless player’s Hunter to stumble upon them. Some of these gods are gruesome beasts–the kind of unthinkably horrible, bizarre things that inspire a genuine sense of awe. Others are humbler creatures, taking unassumingly human forms. Whatever they look like, the power these beings exude is felt constantly in the game’s setting, the city of Yharnam. Despite the intricately crafted mechanisms and finely detailed buildings that suggest the application of advanced, scientific human knowledge in this city, unknowable forces are felt in the margins of even the most recognizably familiar of the game’s environments.

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Subverting the Surveillance State in République

CameraThere is a sense, in the modern world, that we are always being watched. Our web browsers, our phones–nearly everything we do in our daily lives is monitored to some degree. For the most part, we manage to push this knowledge aside by making jokes (“I just said ‘bomb’ on the phone: they’re listening now”) or supposedly acceptable rationalizations (“I don’t do anything illegal online anyway”).

But then something happens that forces us to reevaluate. Something like Edward Snowden revealing the staggering breadth of the NSA’s international surveillance practices in 2013 demonstrates the frightening extent to which the average, supposedly private citizen is being watched. When we’re reminded that we’re living in a world where so much of our lives are recorded, tracked, and monitored, the effect is chilling. We are forced to confront the fact that true privacy is gone–that it seems to have vanished without us truly noticing.

Camouflaj’s République is meant to shake us in this way. It’s meant, in the tradition of all dystopia fiction, to show us how bad things could be if the reality we live in was exaggerated by only a minor degree.

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