Category: Video Games


World of Final Fantasy.

world-of-final-fantasy-pic-1

At face value, a review for this game should be easy. Ask yourself one question: would you consider yourself a Final Fantasy fan? Or have you never touched one of the 15+ main series’ titles in your life?

If you fit into the latter category, rest assured World of Final Fantasy offers little to convince anyone this is a good starting point. This is unashamedly a Final Fantasy title for the fans, of which there are many. So I’ll continue on assuming that anyone reading beyond this point has at least a passing interest in the series.

To set some context here, I’m the type whose introduction to this series was during its initial PlayStation run (I wasn’t yet born when it began), more specifically Final Fantasy VIII. I’ve played every title since, apart from exclusively online titles XI and XIV, and even ventured back to sample earlier games IV, V, and VI. I think it’s fair to say, then, that I belong around the middle of the spectrum, not quite a hardcore fan who’s played every title to completion, but someone with a good working knowledge of the series and proficient knowledge of those titles I have played. In other words, I’m enough of a fan overall to appreciate many of the references included in World of Final Fantasy, though a few did admittedly fly over my head.

At its core that’s essentially what this game is: fan service, in its self-referential nature, gameplay style, and characteristic meandering plot. Initially it feels rather like 2000’s Final Fantasy IX, itself seen as a romantic title harking back to the series’ earlier days before it moved on to the ‘new’ era with Final Fantasy X on the PS2. This is most obvious in its retro-feeling visual style, which is undeniably charming and, in its own way, beautiful.

Character models verge between cartoonish, child-like and disproportionate (a slight nod back to the 2D era of gaming when every character’s head was as big as the rest of their body) to more realistic and evenly proportioned. This is worked into the story, as the two main characters you control during this game, Reynn and Lann, can transform between the former (known here as ‘Lilikins’) and the latter (known as ‘Jiants’).

While your party is, on the surface, restricted to these two characters for the entire game, this gives way to arguably this game’s best attribute, at least in the earlier stages. That is its battling, which revolves around catching ‘mirages’ (basically, monsters with a name that won’t put children off) and stacking them within your party.

Tactically, the stacking system feels addictive, while the colourful visuals add character to the game world.

Tactically, the stacking system feels addictive, while the colourful visuals add character to the design of the game world.

Every mirage has different strengths, and they’re split into three different sizes – small, medium and large – which naturally leads to multiple playing styles and tactics you can employ. Will you stack mirages with similar strengths, or try to balance out their weaknesses? Fans will enjoy the nostalgic designs; being able to get on top of a Malboro’s head in battle is just one of the small joys this game offers. The return of turn-based battles, random encounters and the ‘active time battle’ system from earlier titles is also strangely refreshing, while levelling up occurs on a board similar to the method used in Final Fantasy X and XIII.

The system is not perfect, though. As every mirage begins at level 1 from the moment you catch it, you’re going to have an issue if you find one in the late-game that you wish to add to your party. In my case I had a few different stack selections I was happy with relatively early on, and didn’t vary them much beyond the half-way stage of the game. On the flip side, battle difficulty also appears to wane slightly as you get further on and your team becomes more powerful, when traditionally the opposite is true of RPGs and even other Final Fantasy games. This may be due to the game trying to appeal more to kids and not wanting to be too hard for them to get through it, though it is still interesting enough overall to appeal to more mature players – if not those who prefer a hardcore challenge.

While the gameplay represents World of Final Fantasy’s most addictive aspect, the characters you’re playing with represent something else entirely. Brother/sister duo Lann and Reynn are generic and stereotypical, the former filling the role of an ‘annoying brat’ and his big sister being the typical know-it-all. But far and away the most irritating aspect of this game is their companion (i.e. mascot) Tama, an overly cutesy mirage who places ‘the-’ in front of random objectives every other sentence (she’ll regularly say stuff like “we have to the-run” or “time to the-catch the mirage”). Thankfully there’s an option to skip dialogue, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing that every time Tama starts talking. Even the average 10-year-old I doubt would find it enjoyable.

Generic and annoying main characters aside, others you meet on your journey around the land of Grymoire – basically an amalgamation of various regions from past Final Fantasy titles – help keep the experience fresh. These include famous protagonists from the series’ history such as Cloud (VII), Squall (VIII), Tidus and Yuna (X), Lightning and Snow (XIII), as well as several older characters who I didn’t initially recognise (though the first ‘summon’ you get in this game is a wonderful throwback to the original Final Fantasy; even I could appreciate that).

The game has a surprisingly clever sense of humour and regularly pokes fun at itself – including THAT unbearably awkward laughing scene from Final Fantasy X when you visit the region of Besaid from that game. Every time you catch a new mirage, you’re given a short description that may reference the monster’s past in other games, and the subtle jokes inserted in there never failed to make me chuckle. It is in this aspect that I think the game appeals to more mature players, as there’s no way kids are going to get the humour in most of the references. I certainly enjoyed this element of the game immensely.

Unfortunately, the backdrop to these wonderful references and nostalgia trips is a rather uninspiring plot that becomes unnecessarily convoluted the further you go in the game. This, like the annoyance one feels toward the central characters, exposes World of Final Fantasy’s weakness: its original elements (i.e. when it isn’t relying on nostalgia, borrowed characters and ideas) are utterly forgettable.

But for most fans, I daresay that won’t be a problem. It certainly didn’t stop me enjoying the overall experience for what it was. In fact, there came a clear emotional point in this game for me in which I couldn’t help but react with the kind of pure nostalgic joy that I haven’t felt since revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4. Obviously I won’t spoil it here, but I will say it was upon visiting a well-known location from my personal favourite game in this series, Final Fantasy VIII, at a pivotal point in the story. Yes, it was a joyful fanboy moment, and I have few of those.

So naturally I will be grading this title on a curve, the caveat being that those who aren’t quite as big a fan of Final Fantasy may very well find their overall enjoyment of World of Final Fantasy affected by that. Technically this is a game with a few glaring flaws, but one that has the priceless value of nostalgia thanks to the extensive back catalogue the Final Fantasy series has built up over its 30-year history. Catching and battling with mirages admittedly has the air of Pokemon about it as well; you can even ‘transfigure’ them into larger mirages when you level them up or obtain certain items. For completionists, there is an unmistakable joy to be found in discovering them all. For the rest of you, you may just be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

7 / 10

BAFTA pic 2.

So I know I’m sometimes late to the party with these things, but I have had a film festival and other projects keeping me occupied in recent weeks. I did consider just leaving this one alone and moving on. However, not wanting to miss an extra opportunity to spread the love to another medium, I thought I’d go back a few weeks and revisit the furore around the 12th annual ‘Video game BAFTAs’.

Now the only extensive coverage I’ve seen or read about this event, held at the Tobacco Dock in London, is that of the BBC (mainly from this article), who in the past haven’t typically been the most objective or fair when it comes to video games.

Historically they’ve shown ignorance toward the medium, including once labelling all Twitch users “teenagers, just clicking away, playing their video games all night” (from BBC Newsnight report ‘What is Twitch?’, watch it here). Need I also remind anyone that former London mayor Boris Johnson thinks video games “rot the minds of children”? Forget about even specifying what kind of games exactly (in which case we might be able to have a debate); just ‘video games’ in general. It sometimes astounds me, though only sometimes, how intelligent people can think so one-dimensionally.

The mainstream narrative is usually simple: only immature teenage boys and children play video games. Frequently you’ll see older high-nosed gentlemen – who you know have never properly took a controller in hand themselves – reporting on them, and in not really knowing what they’re talking about, they fall back on out-of-date stereotypes.

This time, however, I was pleasantly satisfied by most of the BBC’s coverage, aside from a rather aggravating Radio 4 interview that we’ll get to later. Of course if you’re taking the time to read this, chances are I’m preaching to the converted anyway and you’d agree that video games are at least worth reading about. I digress with the above diatribe only because I still find it a little surprising that despite the negative press they frequently receive, video games are acknowledged as being worthy of these ceremonial awards at all – though having only started in 2004 I think they were nonetheless late to the party.

Of all the games nominated at the ceremony, only a couple I’ve played myself – Life is Strange, winner of Best Story, and Until Dawn, winner of Best Original Property. Metal Gear Solid V is on my playlist; quite a few others I’ll get around to in due time. After all, it took me a while to catch up on Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, one of my favourite games of the past few years and winner of Best Game Innovation in 2014 (it’s certainly deserving of that award and more).

Needless to say games are more time consuming than films; they’re also more fulfilling in the long run. And it’s vital to experience them in visual over written form; hence why I don’t like over-saturating my written content with game talk. Bearing that in mind, let’s wrap up the main talking points swiftly…

Aside from Best British title Batman: Arkham Knight and Best Game winner Fallout 4, one could consider it a year for the ‘indie’ titles, with acclaimed walking simulator (for lack of a better term) Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture walking away – no pun intended – with Best Music, Audio Achievement, and Performer for Merie Dandridge, who played its lead protagonist Kate Collins.

The Arkham Knight team seemed almost offended when asked in an interview about the broken state of their game on PC and subsequent critical panning of the (frankly abysmal) port. I was surprised this topic was even brought up at a ceremony where everyone’s hanging out and otherwise praising each other for how great a job they’d done; unsurprising was the way in which the team brushed off the question about those problems with the port, instead saying “it’s always really hard when people don’t like what you do”.

Well, no shit. But the problem wasn’t that people didn’t like it per se – it was more that the game was released completely broken and borderline unplayable on PC. Too many major game developers think they can get away with slipping a game out like this before going back and fixing it later; at which point they’ve already got your money. You know what would happen to smaller developers if they tried to pull this kind of thing? They’d go under, as is the case with many companies who don’t deliver working products to their customers.

Speaking of smaller developers, Moon Studios were recognised for their adventure title Ori and the Blind Forest, which won the award for Artistic Achievement. It has received acclaim from critics across the board and is available now for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One.

Her Story is another intriguing title, available on Windows, OS X and iOS, in which players have to put together a series of clues to find a missing man. Sounds a simple premise; in that likely lies the main secret behind its success. It won Best Mobile & Handheld and Game Innovation, along with Best Debut for British director Sam Barlow.

It’s worth noting that Her Story is technically an ‘interactive movie’; a genre many games have been aiming for recently and which certain major game developers (looking at you David Cage and Quantic Dream) consider the future of the medium. Well, how the future for one medium can simply be copying another – that being film – is something for which I don’t quite understand the logic. A positive, bright future for video games is surely the day when they can fully stand alone from films and not be constantly compared to them like some inferior younger sibling. It is younger, yes, but not inherently inferior, and should strive to be different, not the same.

This brings us back again to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and the concept of the ‘walking simulator’; another genre recently linked with ‘modernising’ the medium. It seems this game was one of the most popular at the awards ceremony (having won the three awards mentioned above), and I’m going to estimate that’s mainly because it was seen to be ‘breaking away’ from the usual conventions of violent, action-heavy video games. Does that seem too obvious a conclusion?

Well, a Radio 4 interview (contained in the BBC article previously linked to) with Jessica Curry, co-founder of development studio The Chinese Room, gave me that general impression. It starts out with the host (one of those older gentlemen I earlier alluded to) asking, “what makes this game so different? I mean, obviously they’re not all rushing around shooting each other for a start…” before proceeding to ask “are you concerned with the effect that some of this stuff – some of this ‘other’ stuff – is having on children?”

Pump the brakes right there. That goes back to the presumptive BBC narrative I mentioned before, and I could barely listen to any more of this interview. Curry, to her credit, appears to show awareness that she’s being interviewed by someone who doesn’t really know anything about the gaming scene, and gives some PR line about extremes (like this example) being unhealthy and needing to take everything in moderation. I would’ve preferred her to call bullshit, but I understand she wants to keep her job.

Now let’s say by some chance you’re not too aware of the video game scene yourself but have kept reading anyway; maybe the only exposure you’ve had to gaming before is that which you’ve seen on the news or read online, likely accompanied by a sensationalist headline. Video games across the board are often blamed for violence in teenage boys, for mass shootings in America, for failing performance at school, for men mistreating women, for the general disconnect between kids and their parents. I’ve read articles and watched television programmes or movies that have suggested all of these links and many more. Each claim made without a shred of evidence to back it up, other than “this person played video games, therefore…”

My argument would not necessarily be that video games have nothing at all to do with any of those things – but they are not the cause. Correlation does not equal causation. Maybe (only maybe) they did have an effect at some point along the line. But for as long as games are made the face of the problem, it’s impossible to have a conversation that might lead us closer to the real issue. That’s a topic for another time; for now let’s go over a couple of basic points.

First, not all video games are for kids any more than all films are for kids. Obviously there are films suitable for kids. But you would not show your child The Exorcist as if it were a Disney movie. At least I’d like to hope not.

The trouble is, many parents still look at a game like Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a Disney movie. It is not. That large red 18 rating on the cover is there for a genuine reason; because this is a mature game suitable for adults.

Now even if your child was to play an 18 rated game, that does not guarantee anything. I first played GTA when I was about 12 and have turned out a relatively stable human being, but back then I was also reasonably stable and emotionally mature for my age. It’s worth bearing in mind, there are many children who take longer to mature, and the certification rating is there mainly to cover that age range.

The reason I bring this up as particularly important is because when people such as the Radio 4 host mentioned above ask a leading question like, “are you concerned with the effect these games are having on children?” they are referring primarily to games that have a higher age rating than those children playing them. So even if their clear assertion was based on some factual evidence, all they would really be doing is illustrating how vital it is for parents to follow that rating system.

Second, and this is a small leap when one comes to realise they can be enjoyed by adults too, video games actually have the potential to be highly mature pieces of entertainment. Frankly they’re not just toys to sit your kids in front of; nor some mindless button-mashing addiction, even if that is the form a lot of them take (there’s no problem with them being that either). They deserve as much respect in a mainstream context as films; they are at least capable of tackling the same issues, the same themes, and producing the same kind of hard-hitting masterpieces.

In order to reach that potential, they must be allowed to portray tough imagery and allowed to tackle those tough themes. They should be able to feature not only war (see This War of Mine rather than Call of Duty), violence, and murder, but also ethical and moral choices, mental illness, suicide to name a few, without being degraded and threatened with banning for doing so.

Ultimately that’s why I can’t help but take some interest in the video game BAFTAs; an opportunity for this medium to receive some positive mainstream press, also perhaps a chance for the average person to learn a little more about them and come to realise the points I’ve been preaching above. Yes, video games matter to a lot of us – too often are we left frustrated by them simply being passed off as infantile ‘mindless entertainment’.

Rewind back to August 12, 2014 and bring any kind of passing interest in the Silent Hill series… you’d find yourself in the midst of an online explosion of hype surrounding a certain demo codenamed Playable Teaser (P.T.). This was the red herring for Silent Hills; what was to be the latest instalment in the much-loved survival horror franchise about some sleepy mid-west American town perpetually shrouded in fog and inhabited by deformed monstrosities.

If the unsettling atmosphere of P.T. promised us anything, it was that this new iteration was set up to succeed – an anticipated return to form for a series that had long since lost its way after passing into the hands of American developers post-2004.

I’ve talked about the whole episode before on this blog. I was there to take part in the hype when the game was first announced and set the internet ablaze. Similarly when, in April 2015, rumours began circulating that the project had been cancelled in light of Hideo Kojima’s reported issues within Konami and also the studio’s seemingly abrupt change of focus from console to mobile gaming. On April 27, 2015, these rumours were confirmed and Silent Hills officially cancelled.

As of writing, P.T. is no more (I say that in hope that it will, at some point in the future, be made available to gamers once again) – the online demo pulled by Konami as they look to erase any evidence of their past failures. Now the only people able to play it are those who had already downloaded it onto their PS4 systems pre-cancellation. But in its short existence it became one of the most popular horror ‘games’ in PlayStation history, going on to gain undoubted cult status and a somewhat mythical quality that only keeps growing. YouTube videos featuring play-throughs of the teaser (only a 30-45 minute long experience at best) are as popular as ever. Many fans still hope there is some way in which the project might be picked up again; most of us accepted a while back that it was time to move on and Silent Hills likely isn’t coming back any time soon.

A lot of other people, to whom the words ‘Silent Hill’ meant nothing before and don’t suddenly mean anything now, won’t understand the hype. That’s fine; cult movies and video games wouldn’t be that if everyone ‘got it’.

Some of those who did get it have since taken to paying homage to the source material in creative, imaginative ways. If Silent Hills never comes, then it will at least have cast the shadow of what could have been on other artistic endeavours. Such as the video below; a short film that has been doing the rounds online over the past few days. This impressive homage is the main reason I’m writing about P.T. again today. It admittedly made me pine for what’s past, but it also feels like something entirely fresh. This is the kind of mark Silent Hills has left. It is quite possibly a sign of the influence that may yet be felt in horror movies and video games to come in future. In that way, the Silent Hill game that never was may just live on forever. Enjoy!

MGS 2 pic 3.

What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context.”

Over the next few months I’ll be looking back at some of PlayStation’s most significant titles as the console celebrates its twentieth anniversary in the UK this year (by year in this case I count from September 2015 to September 2016).

On this occasion I’ve selected a game that was both ahead of its time and simultaneously very much a product of its time; a project the likes of which simply wouldn’t be possible in today’s gaming industry, and not in the way you might imagine.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released in late 2001/ early 2002 (depending on whether you were living in America or Europe respectively) around the time the PlayStation2 was starting to really hit its stride. You could justifiably argue this was one of the titles that helped kick start the console’s mainstream popularity – indeed it was widely regarded as the PS2’s first ‘essential’ game; the first to receive truly widespread critical acclaim.

It’s almost impossible now to capture the sense of anticipation that surrounded this game pre-release. To claim it was the video game equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster released during the peak summer months is no overstatement. For many gamers it was even more than that: think almost as big as the hype and expectation that is currently greeting The Force Awakens and you’d be pretty close. While there have certainly been bigger and better games since, I don’t recall this kind of attention ever greeting another video game in history.

This was a time before publishers generally marketed their games as if they were a big deal. Today we see major game studios scrambling every year to make their generic first-person shooters or action-adventure games seem relevant, and it’s not at all surprising to see cinematic game trailers appearing in your local movie theatre before the film. This wasn’t the case with video games before Metal Gear Solid 2.

Creator Hideo Kojima knew exactly how BIG his new game was. He turned this enormous hype against those responsible for it; using the marketing campaign and then the content of the game itself to dupe the series’ own fans in a way that remains unprecedented to this day.

In a move that took a definite amount of balls (which may have seemed almost career suicide to a director-designer less confident and capable than he), Kojima switched out the protagonist fans knew and loved from previous games – chain-smoking mercenary Solid Snake – for an unknown and less aesthetically pleasing rookie with a whiny voice and shoulder-length blonde hair.

No one saw it coming. Not only because the marketing campaign gave no glimpses or made any mention of this new character – named ‘Raiden’ – whom you were to spend three quarters of the game controlling, but also because that same marketing had made it appear as if you were instead going to play the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 2 in control of the aforementioned Solid Snake, the same way you did in the original MGS three years earlier. As it soon turned out, all of the game’s promotional material had been taken exclusively from its prologue tanker level, which made up barely an hour of the overall playing experience.

This wasn’t just a case of withholding plot information – it was dangerously close to deliberately misleading consumers, and some of the anger directed towards Kojima afterwards was from the very same fans who had been eagerly preparing to sing his praises…

Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2... but in the end, that was kind of the point.

The character of Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2… but in the end, that was kind of the point.

Most of the hype surrounding this game was due predominantly to the impact of the first Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998 for the PlayStation. At the time it was labeled the ‘greatest video game ever made’ – which held true as the closest thing to an objective opinion the industry has ever had (I was never quite on that bandwagon, but I could see where they were coming from). In this sense it was almost like the Citizen Kane of video games; a somewhat appropriate comparison seeing as the game gave off extremely cinematic vibes.

This was, after all, a time when the video game industry was obsessed with trying (and largely failing) to emulate films. Metal Gear Solid was the first game to do that convincingly, and this sequel even more so. The trajectory on which it sent the industry is polarising for many; as it seems a lot of players today generally still judge game quality on how ‘cinematic’ they are.

In some ways this is concerning. Yes it has given us some visually beautiful and well acted games, but it also prevents many more original titles from getting noticed – and often it is those more original titles that capture the true essence of what video games can achieve. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a fabulous recent example of a game that told its story primarily through gameplay mechanics rather than exposition-heavy cut scenes – something which the MGS series has traditionally been infamous for.

But that present concern does not stop me from reflecting on the sentimental attachment I have to this particular cinematic game; and acknowledging just how well it turned out as a self-contained, narrative-driven experience.

The success of MGS (itself the third part in a previously Japanese-exclusive Metal Gear series dating back to 1987 on the lesser known MSX2) made the mainstream world really take notice of Hideo Kojima’s talents. For this sequel he was able to hire Hollywood composer Harry Greyson-Williams to help give Sons of Liberty an even more important, cinematic feel – and it shows from the game’s impressive opening sequence. To this day the soundtrack for this game remains one of the PlayStation’s most memorable, and it was certainly among my favourites growing up. It gave MGS2 a sense of gravitas that very few other games had.

What also added to this sense was the fact that the game took itself so seriously. A risk considering some of its characters and plot elements; one that could have fallen flat if the whole thing was not executed well. Fortunately it was, and while the jury is still out for a lot of people on whether Hideo Kojima is actually a good writer, one can’t help but appreciate the immaculate level of polish he puts on all of his games. MGS2 was a shining example of that polish.

The game’s story, for all its Hollywood production values, may appear unnecessarily convoluted in places. You could argue the overall experience is unbalanced, with most of its narrative exposition and main themes coming in the final third. Indeed, this rather crippled the pacing of the gameplay towards the climactic final boss fight. That’s without taking into account another crucial point: unless you’re already invested in the MGS universe, most of this game is unlikely to make the least bit of sense.

After all, your adversaries include an immortal vampire who runs on water, a woman who can’t be hit by bullets, and a literal ‘fat man’ on skates who is also an ingenious bomb expert. An anonymous Russian ninja occasionally pops up to help you out of rough spots. The leader of the game’s villainous group wears a full body armoured suit with two tentacles attached, which he uses to suffocate people and out of which he can even shoot missiles.

His right-hand man – Revolver Ocelot, who was a major character in the first game as well – is at times subject to mind control from the inhibited consciousness that exists in his forearm. This, an arm which previously belonged to the now deceased main villain from the original MGS and has since been surgically grafted onto Ocelot – who had lost his own arm in the first game when it was cut off by a different ninja, though one that bore a striking resemblance to the ninja appearing in this sequel.

So you see how this game might be a little hard to follow for the uninitiated? Hell, even for long term fans it takes a bit of effort to keep track.

Without doubt it was mostly those familiar with the first game who Kojima had in mind while making Sons of Liberty. One can’t help but experience a strong feeling of nostalgia while playing as Snake on the tanker, and there is a similar (but at the same time unmistakably separate) sense of deja vu in playing through Raiden’s espionage mission. Well of course, you might say, this is a sequel after all!

Yes, it was as much a sequel as sequels can get, and in certain ways it felt almost like a lazy one. In fact it’s the very definition of a fan-pleasing experience from beginning to end of the opening tanker chapter; at which point Kojima stops pandering and proceeds to give fans the proverbial middle finger instead.

The game drastically changes in both tone and pacing with Raiden’s appearance. Here you find yourself forced to play as a rookie, not only within the context of the plot but as a player too; having to go through the same basic setup that you’ve already been through in the original MGS with Snake.

Your Colonel unnecessarily tells you basic controls. In baby steps you’re taken through the opening sequence alongside Raiden as if you, like him, are new to this kind of thing – despite the fact that you’ve just played the prologue level as a veteran in control of Solid Snake, picking up where the first game left off. You’re taken from that to literally starting afresh, and the experience was almost as jarring as having the Snake character yanked from your fingertips.

Suddenly it’s almost like you’re playing a version of the first game over again – though one that doesn’t feel quite as authentic. On the surface, most of Raiden’s campaign seems an unoriginal retread of a path you already walked in Metal Gear Solid; the deja vu you feel in this case is not the same nice nostalgic feeling present in the previous tanker chapter, but a rather more unsettling one.

This game’s main villains, Dead Cell, are uncannily similar in their eccentric curiosity to the Foxhound group from the first game. There’s also the return of a mysterious ninja; in both games an ambiguous individual with ties to neither side. And your Colonel? Just so happens to (seemingly) be the very same one who helped guide Solid Snake through Shadow Moses in that first title.

The whole thing felt like too much of an echo back to Metal Gear Solid – close to a simple copy and paste in certain respects. It is only in the plot’s final third that this all brilliantly unravels; when it is revealed that ‘recreating Shadow Moses’ was precisely the intention of a shady organisation that had been manipulating both sides all along to further their own plans for society.

You find out that your Colonel, whose orders you’ve been following on the mission to which Raiden is assigned, is actually an A.I. (or something…) operating on behalf of the Patriots; a group of individuals who control the United States from the shadows, from whom even the President receives orders. The game’s main villain – at least, you’ve been led to believe he’s the villain up to this point – proposes to break the Patriots’ rule over the country and set everyone free from their control (hence becoming the Sons of Liberty of the game’s title).

Your real mission is to eliminate him before this plan comes to fruition – though you only find this out toward the game’s conclusion, up until which point you had been fed a convenient and rather typical espionage cover story regarding hostages, ransom demands and nuclear bombs.

At the same time, it is revealed that the Patriots set up the conditions for the entire operation from the beginning – indirectly giving Solidus (your adversary) the means by which his plan could progress to its later stages – as part of a test to see if a typical rookie operative could be moulded into a legendary mercenary, similar to Solid Snake but this time created on their own terms, if placed in the right environment. This operation is codenamed the ‘S3 plan’, which stands for ‘Solid Snake Simulation’.

Yes, the conventionality of it all – from the game’s plot outline to its blatant comparisons with the original, via a ‘rookie’ in the form of Raiden – had been a setup; not only from the perspective of the game’s characters but for the benefit of the player. We’re the real test subjects for the S3 plan – how successfully the game manages to pull the wool over our eyes and keep up the illusion is the litmus test that shows its effectiveness.

This sequel played on and caught you up in your own expectations. Raiden is informed towards the end of the game that his Colonel, a man he had never met in person, was, in part, a projection of images cobbled together from his own subconscious expectations. In a way this is true for the player as well; the Colonel sounds exactly like the one we knew from the previous game because our expectations from that game told us this is what a Colonel should sound like. It becomes blatantly apparent that the two characters are different entities, so Kojima had no other reason to re-use the same likeness than to make this point – at the same time putting us in the same state of unease as Raiden; the only difference being that the player senses this unease from the beginning. But it’s something you put to the back of your mind, at least until the in-game characters become aware of their situation later.

In the end you realise we, as players, were duped as much as the fictional characters in this game. The prologue tanker level was everything fans wanted and had asked for, picking up where the first game left off with two of its most popular characters in a brand new, visually pleasing scenario. You strap yourself in and get ready to enjoy an indulgent sequel experience that will leave you feeling your expectations have been met.

Hideo Kojima shows here that he was fully aware of what those expectations were, and teases you with the intention of meeting them for all of an hour’s playing time before pulling you out of the illusion.

Then, you’re in his game. A game that repeats much of what you saw first time round, but in a way that isn’t quite as authentic. Suddenly you’re back to roaming claustrophobic corridors and learning guard routine patterns. At times it feels almost like a parody of what came before, while also forcing you to play as a less accomplished character than your previous protagonist… but whom you play as anyway because that’s the game you’ve been given, and even though things are not exactly how you’d like them to be, this is still Metal Gear Solid after all.

So everything’s not quite as you’d like or imagine it to be – but this version is crafted to show you just how willing you and every other player is to accept what you are given. It’s a copy, albeit not an exact one. Merely a recreated scenario; one that becomes almost dream-like right before the end, at which point you ‘wake up’. Seriously, the ending cut-scene to this game feels so tonally contrasting to what came immediately before it that it feels like stepping back into reality from what had become a nightmare.

Before fighting the final boss, the Patriots’ blatantly reveal their intention for you to succeed in your mission by killing your adversary. While Raiden protests at this, saying “I’m through doing what I’m told” and even claiming “we’re not puppets in some game, you know”, the game nonetheless throws you into the fight; a fight to the death which you willingly comply with because it’s the scenario that presents itself.

You aren’t going to turn the game off now if only for wanting to see how it ends. While playing through the final sneaking section leading up to this point, the malfunctioning Colonel A.I. dared you, the player, to “turn the game console off right now”, or suggested “you shouldn’t sit so close to the TV”, or commented “you’ve been playing the game for an awfully long time… don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

These comments showed the game’s awareness of its own place within its medium, playing on concerns that players may be facing outside of its universe… are you sitting too close to the TV? Are there better things you could be doing with your time? The answer to both is, probably, yes.

Through it all you keep playing anyway, because “this is a game after all. It’s a game, just like usual” (to use another of the quirky Colonel’s quips) – as if you needed reassuring that, despite its self-awareness, you were still just playing a game to have fun. Of course, this kind of experience was far from typical.

When people claim this is a ‘postmodern’ game they aren’t simply saying it has certain postmodern threads or thematic elements. The entire experience is, in a sense, a reflection of the original, which itself was heralded as a masterpiece of modern gaming. It was postmodern in the purest sense of the term – coming after the modern, it offered context by which we could judge what came before.

This concept of ‘creating context’ is taken even further in a revealing conversation with your Colonel after the plot’s main points have been divulged. It becomes apparent that he is more than just an ‘A.I.’ during this final reveal. He first explains ‘their’ true origins:

“To begin with, we’re not what you’d call… human.

Over the past two hundred years, a kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House.

It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago.

We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often.

How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we.”

Now, to grasp what’s going on here you need to understand we’re no longer really talking in tangible terms. What this is referring to is not any single character or being, but to human culture itself – the culture around which modern society has been circling for quite some time. A culture in which following certain rules and holding objective beliefs is rewarded; indeed, the idea is that we need those things, organised in a structure, to survive as a species.

MGS2 was released just after the turn of the Millennium; a time when the world was in the midst of transitioning to a more ‘digitised’ age. With this new flow of digital information came a unique challenge to the cultural pattern referred to above, and it is this challenge that ‘the Patriots’ are responding to during the course of this game. Their answer is an advanced A.I. that will control the flow of information so it doesn’t overwhelm humanity. The ‘Colonel’ goes on to explain this:

“In the current digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness, never fading, always accessible.

The S3 plan does not stand for Solid Snake Simulation. What it does stand for is ‘Selection for Societal Sanity’

You seem to think our plan is one of censorship?”

Raiden: “Are you trying to say it’s not?!”

Colonel: “What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context…

The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards development of convenient half-truths; everyone withdraws into their small, gaited community, afraid of a larger forum.

They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever truth suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.

The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh; no one is invalidated, but no one is right.

Not even natural selection can take place here; the world is being engulfed in ‘truth’.

And this is the way the world ends… not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Bear in mind this was before the rise of social media. Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist, but MGS2 foresaw their emergence with alarming insightfulness. Are they not guilty of promoting the very things described in the above dialogue?

Selectively rewarding convenient half-truths… everyone afraid of a larger forum, leaking whatever ‘truth’ suits them into society at large… no one is invalidated, but no one is right… the world being engulfed in ‘truth’.

Let’s be honest: this is social media in a nutshell. Social media itself is representative of the Internet in a nutshell.

You’ve probably complained about it yourself. Look at how social media trends develop; observe how they eventually die out; see how someone will ‘share a link’ of a tragedy in the Middle East and, with their social justice fingertips at the ready, point out to everyone that it doesn’t get the same coverage as a similar tragedy in Europe… and point out how much of an injustice this is.

To some the flow of ‘trivial’ information over the Internet represents freedom. Others ridicule and scoff at it, indirectly revealing that they think it should be controlled; advocating the kind of ‘S3 plan’ the Patriots had in mind.

I admit I’ve fallen on both sides in the past. I know that for all the amazing bits of useful information to be found online, there is much more ‘rubbish’ one has to wade through. That ‘useless’ information (one of the biggest enemies of productivity if nothing else) is precisely the kind that the A.I. in this game was proposing to filter out.

Isn’t the main problem with a lot of online information that it often appears on our news feeds without appropriate contextualisation? Isn’t the problem then exasperated by everyone reacting to it without bothering to look into that context?

Maybe the Patriots were right after all. Many of us crave the context they proposed to create. But there will always be a side of us that misunderstands context for control over that same information. Or perhaps, from another point of view: there’s a side of us that prefers reacting to things free from context – because context can affect our ingrained sense of ‘truth’ in a way that could make us revaluate what we believe or how we live. And to do that is uncomfortable.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty ends with Raiden completing his mission, but having gone through an identity crisis in the process, he finishes with a question; “who am I really?” A question Kojima was posing to the player as much as the protagonist.

The game doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, finishing in open-ended fashion that encourages you to find truth for yourself. Snake gives you this gem in conclusion to the game’s events: “what you think you see is only as real as your brain tells you it is.”

It’s worth pointing out that Hideo Kojima originally envisaged the Metal Gear series ending with Sons of Liberty. If you’re wondering why he had the balls to try pulling this off, it is quite simply because he wasn’t relying – as so many major studios and developers are – on milking this thing any further as a franchise. Which made its status as a ‘blockbuster’ game even more unique.

Indeed Kojima was convinced later to make more games in the series, and the sequels that followed MGS2 included considerably more fan service than we see here – not to mention an overarching plot that pretty much retconned the final twenty minutes of MGS2. Kojima made those other games for the fans, whereas here he wasn’t particularly concerned with pleasing anyone. For that reason I consider both the original MGS and this sequel to be the truest portrayals of his vision we’ve seen.

With MGS2 he was encouraging players to really think about what they were doing; what had led them to play this game; how they consume what they see online and in the media; even how they were living their lives and what the future might hold. Here we had the video game equivalent of a major Hollywood movie franchise (the biggest name of its time) tackling convoluted themes such as freedom of choice and the subjectivity of truth, without having given its audience any indication beforehand that it was going to do such a thing. Many were not so much left unsatisfied as left flat-out baffled by the experience.

This remains one of the most complicated game plots of all time. In my eyes it represents a masterpiece – not strictly a ‘gaming’ masterpiece, but certainly in how it sets up and tells its story, as well as how it manipulated players before and after release. That’s a bit of a controversial opinion in some circles, with many considering this game not even the best in its series. But I think it’s a game everyone should experience, even if you go away feeling slightly exasperated by it.

Furthermore, if you’re ever going to start playing the MGS series, do yourself a favour and start with the original before moving on to this one. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005) is a prequel and, although arguably a better game overall, its story went some way to changing how you looked at everything that came before. The first two games should be taken as separate entities before they’re later considered in the context of the series as a whole.

Even today I still frequently go back to MGS2 to re-live a game that is as simple in its gameplay as it is complex in its storytelling. It features one of the most unique plots and some of the most challenging themes ever included in a video game, and it’s undoubtedly one of my personal favourites.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Brothers- Two Sons pic 1.

Every so often a special game comes along that makes me pity those who consider this medium no more than a tool for distracting children or an outlet for the violent tendencies of teenage boys. Silent Hill 2, with its clever use of metaphorical imagery, atmospheric gameplay and the subtle way in which it tackled the subject of mental health, was one of those titles, and it’s one I occasionally go back to (I’m talking the original grainy PS2 version, not the terribly executed remaster) when I need reminding of the ability of video games to be so much more than mere shadows of the other artistic mediums they try to emulate – like films and literature.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons also happens to be one of those special games. First released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 back in 2013, I recently purchased the brand new PS4 version of the game after having seen the overwhelmingly positive reaction to it on those other platforms (PC in particular; the PS3 version reportedly had some frame rate issues). Developed by Starbreeze Studios and published by 505 Games, neither of which are big names in the industry, one of the most intriguing things that first catches your eye about Brothers is that its director is actually better known for working in films: Swedish director Josef Fares.

Now I say this is intriguing because Brothers does not come across as an imitation of a film at all. It is instead very much a video game experience, rather than something with aspirations of being an ‘interactive movie’.

It does have a story – a very powerful, emotional story in fact – and the game tells it without ever using one word of English. Nor any other language that I know of; its characters speak what can only be described as ‘gibberish’. Having said that, this is an unmistakably linear, intrinsically story-driven game. I’m not overstating this: Brothers really is ALL about the story. What it does so well is merge that story with its gameplay mechanics, and give the player directions through gestures and voice inflections rather than spoon feeding you information through non-interactive cut scenes.

I’d go so far as to say this is a game you need to experience primarily for the story. It isn’t a long one, lasting between 3-4 hours depending on your own pace, yet there are so many memorable moments to see (visually the game is gorgeous; smartly it offers you the chance to just sit and admire the scenery at various points) and to feel as you play through it.

With the game being so brief, yet so well paced and directed, I don’t want to spoil one part of that journey, but suffice to say it is more emotionally affecting than most games I’ve played in the past decade. I’d dare anyone not to get close to tears at one point towards the end in particular. This game isn’t afraid of tackling deep, emotional issues, and while there are certainly other games for which that is also true, where Brothers is so unique is that it lets the player feel for themselves through the gameplay, rather than trying to manipulate that emotion through an acted scene.

Here’s the premise: two brothers must go on a journey to find a mysterious ‘tree of life’ in order to save their dying father. This journey takes them through different environments, from your own sunny village to a snowy mountaintop and beyond. On your way you find people, animals, even at one point a pair of trolls who you can help with their own dilemmas, ranging from fun little excursions to literally life-saving actions. Each portion of the journey is full of surprises, whether in the environment itself, or slightly off the beaten track if you choose to explore a little.

Part of the tagline for the game goes like this; “One must be strong where the other is weak, brave where the other is fearful, they must be… Brothers”. That one line sums it up almost perfectly. The gameplay is, in one sense, astoundingly simple, yet can take a few moments getting used to and requires concentration to maintain throughout a couple of sequences in particular.

Controlling both brothers simultaneously often makes for some compelling yet challenging gameplay.

Controlling both brothers simultaneously often makes for some compelling yet challenging gameplay.

Best described as ‘single player co-op’, you control both brothers with one controller, one with the left thumb stick and the other with the right, and progressing through the game requires you to utilise both in equal measure. You may need to lift one brother up to a ledge on the other’s shoulders, so he can then let down a rope for the other to climb. Or indeed other instances require the brothers to lift a heavy object, or push a door simultaneously, in which case your hand-eye co-ordination will be tested as you try to keep them both operating equally. You really grow to feel that these two brothers literally need each other to survive their journey.

Brothers communicates this in a way that is impossible for non-interactive mediums like films or books to do. It puts you directly in control of the journey. Their story is told by your actions; their intrinsic bond fostered through how you must use them together to progress. For a medium that seems to be constantly comparing itself to films, constantly trying to pass itself off as ‘just like them’ in its cinematic storytelling, a game like Brothers is a real breath of fresh air. Yet what it achieves is, in a sense, so simple.

I think the video game industry as a whole can look at a game like Brothers as a fine example of how to step out on its own two feet. Be bold. Tell your story as only a game can; through gameplay. You don’t even need real words to do it.

Please take the time to experience this game for yourself if you have the means of doing so. You won’t regret it. There is only so much I can get across through writing about it; even in my praise I surely haven’t done the game true justice, and I doubt I’ve really captured the essence of how it feels to play. It is unlike anything else on the market today; it commands respect for a medium that is otherwise subject to unfavourable industry trends. If you’re truly curious about what video games can achieve, beyond the tired old stereotypes, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons would be a fine place to start.

10 / 10

20 Years of PlayStation.

PS logo.

Yesterday marked twenty years since the original PlayStation was first released here in the UK.

I didn’t get in on the action until three years after that; the PlayStation being my first official game console (not counting a borrowed Game Boy) in 1998, around the time Metal Gear Solid was changing how people looked at the previously infantile industry. No doubt about it – Sony’s PlayStation was at least partially responsible for making the gaming medium seem mature and even ‘cool’.

I wanted to mark this special, momentous anniversary with something kind of unique. But I couldn’t think of anything, so instead I’m just going to write some more about video games – in particular those that have been synonymous with PlayStation over the years – over the next few weeks and months on this blog. I might even make a new category for it.

Games I’ll cover during this period will include:

Resident Evil (1996), Final Fantasy VII (1997), Metal Gear Solid (1998), Silent Hill (1999), Final Fantasy VIII (1999), Final Fantasy IX (2000), Silent Hill 2 (2001), Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001), Kingdom Hearts (2002), TimeSplitters 2 (2002), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), Resident Evil 4 (2005), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), Final Fantasy XII (2006), Okami (2006), Journey (2012), The Last of Us (2013), Grand Theft Auto V (2013)…

Note that this list will likely be adapted in the near future (I’m sure there’s some I’ve left out), but for now these are the games that come to mind when I think of how the PlayStation has impacted me personally. Also bear in mind that this is not supposed to be a list of the best PlayStation games – I wouldn’t claim to have played enough to make that kind of call. Though I think this is at least a list of some of the most important games to have been released in the past 20 years, not just in relation to PlayStation but for the industry as a whole. I’ll aim to explain why I think so as I cover each one – and yes, they probably will come across as essays. I have included games in this list about which I feel I have something useful to say – indeed, most of which I feel have something useful to say to us – and I will try my best to say it without pandering to those who have the attention span of a fish.

If the list seems to become more sparse as the years go on, that is quite simply because I think the general quality of games (on console at least) has somewhat declined in those years. This may seem an outrageous claim considering the fact that games are technically ‘better’ today than they’ve ever been. But consider, for a moment, the reasons why you might think that. Consider the trends that seem to have gripped the industry in the past ten years.

Or don’t worry about it right now and just bask in the nostalgia, as I am doing. At 25 years old, I not only feel like I grew up with these games – when it comes to PlayStation I literally did grow up with it. We have matured alongside each other, and to look at the PS4 now without truly admiring where it came from would be an injustice that I’d like to think current and future generations won’t suffer. But I realise, in reality, how fortunate I am that this is the time I’ve grown up in. It will never quite be recreated because it was our time. No one else’s. The era of the PlayStation has run its course – or perhaps, in a sense, it is only just beginning.

One final point: I won’t be tackling the above games in the order I’ve listed them. This is partly because doing so would be formulaic and possibly boring. I will cover each of them as and when I feel it is relevant – in other words, precisely when I feel like it.

Iwata pic 1.

Aside from owning the original Gameboy back in the day, which was used almost exclusively for Pokemon Blue (and then Silver) as well as the occasional game of Tetris, I’ve never been a big Nintendo guy.

My first home video game console was the PlayStation in 1998. The NES and SNES were well before my time, while Nintendo 64 was very much in second place behind Sony’s console in the market by the time I became truly intrigued – indeed it was the PlayStation’s impressive selection of games (Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, Final Fantasy VII were already at the height of their popularity, with Silent Hill to grace the landscape soon after) that first got me so interested in what the industry could be capable of. Gamecube would find itself in a similar spot next to the PlayStation 2 a couple of years later, its faltering position exasperated by Microsoft’s entrance into the market with the Xbox.

Enter Satoru Iwata, who took over as President of Nintendo in May 2002. Not to say that’s where his legacy with the company began, of course; in 1999 he had assisted in the development of Pokemon Gold and Silver, creating a set of compression tools that made it possible for the game to become almost twice the size of its original potential. That’s right – you have Iwata to thank for the exceptionally huge post-game of those titles, in which you were able to explore a whole other region after completing the main story. To this day Pokemon Silver is still one of my all-time favourite games, due in no small part to that aspect of it.

Iwata become an official Nintendo employee in 2000, working as head of its corporate planning division. During his time in this role, profit increases up to 41% over a two year period were attributed (at least in part) to him. Such was his success and soaring reputation, that Hiroshi Yamauchi (Nintendo president between 1949-2002) eagerly gave him his blessing to succeed him in his role. This was especially significant as it marked the first time Nintendo had a president outside of the Yamauchi family line. It was a role Iwata held right up until his death earlier this month (July 11), and he certainly made it his own.

During his tenure Nintendo re-established themselves as a major player on the home console market, as well as further strengthening their hold on the handheld one. The Nintendo DS released in 2004 and has gone on to become the best-selling handheld console ever, and the second best-selling console overall behind the PlayStation 2. I only recently invested in a 3DS myself last year for the nostalgia trip that was Pokemon Alpha Sapphire, and I don’t regret that decision one bit. Ten years on, the DS console line is still going strong, with only incremental improvements necessary to keep it feeling modern and up to date with the competition (though that competition is admittedly light at the moment).

The Wii came out in November 2006, pretty much alongside the PS3, and though Sony’s console took a while to settle, Nintendo’s hit the ground running, aiming for a broader family-oriented demographic. Now, I admit never having liked the Wii very much for this reason – it doesn’t exactly help the general impression that all games should be kid-friendly. For as much as there is a place for that, I believe there should also be a place for more mature gaming experiences that tackle more serious issues, and the blatant success of the Wii may have put us some years behind on the industry getting to that point in a wider context.

When most parents think of video games now, the Wii probably comes to mind – along with the relatively harmless games that came with it, which the whole family can enjoy from a six year old to your grandmother. This kind of stereotypical image is partly why Grand Theft Auto V still garners so much widespread controversy despite having a clear 18 rating on its cover (hint: that means it is unsuitable for children).

Still, my personal gripes shouldn’t take away from the Wii’s success. It owed this directly to Iwata, whose decision to aim for a more casual gaming market smartly meant Nintendo would no longer be fighting a battle they couldn’t win against the Xbox 360 and PS3, who kept their focus on hardcore gamers (i.e. the 16-49 year old male demographic, which one could argue is just as detrimental to the industry long-term as my aforementioned gripe about focusing on families). The Wii’s release and subsequent success helped to almost double Nintendo’s stock price – another sign of the company’s upward turn under Iwata’s leadership.

Of course it was not all good; though even during the slight downturn for Nintendo in more recent years (the Wii U, released in 2012, has been underwhelming in comparison to the Wii’s success and found itself falling behind in the console race once Xbox One and PS4 arrived on the scene), Iwata led the company with dignity and retained the confidence of his employees. In 2011 he voluntarily cut his salary by half in response to poor sales – and did the same thing again in 2014. But in truth, by this point his legacy at Nintendo had already long been cemented.

There is a quote from Iwata, which he made at the Game Developers Conference in 2005, that for me sums up precisely why he had such success and respect from his peers within this industry: “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer”.

This man was a gamer first and foremost, and that is why I felt the need to write a little bit about him now. It may sound like a given, that someone working in such a prominent position in this industry would also have been a gamer, but the current market trends of games being released broken (which, by the way, Nintendo simply don’t do) and over-priced DLC tells me the business men in this industry are no longer in step with gamers. They are merely men who know business, and were brought here simply because they saw potential in video games to be one of the most profitable industries on the planet. It is certainly that, but unless we see more men like Satoru Iwata around these parts again soon, I doubt it will retain its heart for much longer.

Konami code..

Two weeks ago, I lamented the demise of Silent Hills and pondered what the loss of the PT teaser demo could mean for the games industry in an age of digital distribution. This week I’m going straight for the company behind it all – offering criticism that they’ve done very well to invite onto themselves.

As I’ve said previously, Konami were behind some of my favourite video games from the past – such as the early Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid titles from the late ‘90s/ early 2000s. I was also an avid player of their Pro Evolution Soccer series in my mid-teens, and even bought the 2015 edition after it got the series’ best reviews in almost a decade. So this is far from some gleeful battering of a company I love to hate – if anything it is exactly the opposite.

Konami, based in Japan (once where all the best games came from), are the fifth largest game company in the world today. While most would agree that the quality of their games has been gradually deteriorating in recent years (the possible reasons for which are too intricate to explore in detail here), regular iterations of the above franchises are still some of the bestselling titles on the market. Therefore, rather like Liverpool F.C., you could say they’ve been living off their past successes for a while now. They certainly don’t deserve, nor do they ask for our sympathies from a financial point of view. In fact, recent events can arguably be put down to exactly that: money, and wanting to make more of it.

Rumours of something being amiss within Konami began when it emerged back in March that Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear creator and without doubt their biggest asset as it pertains to developing for current generation consoles, was to leave the company when development finished on Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain (due for release in September). No reason was given nor has either party spoken of it since, aside from Konami confirming that they would continue to develop new Metal Gear titles after Kojima left – though whether or not that would be for console wasn’t a detail they elaborated on. Many gamers safely assumed this would of course be the case; after all, developing for console has worked well as a business model for the company thus far.

Yet there were other hints that they were perhaps starting to shift direction. The Phantom Pain remains their only confirmed upcoming release this year, despite the Pro Evolution Soccer series having been an annual release every year since 2001. That a new instalment of PES has so far received no mention at all (we’re now at the end of May and each version is usually released in October) would seem to suggest the series will not, in fact, be returning later this year to continue its annual rivalry with EA’s Fifa series. Of all the company’s curious decisions lately, this may be the most eyebrow raising; while Fifa continues to outsell it year on year, the PES series was still a regular and all-but-guaranteed source of substantial income for Konami.

So why then cease its production? The answer to that question and what it could mean for the direction the video game industry is heading in (from my point of view) may just be more worrying than the PT fiasco that preceded it.

You’ll remember PT. It was that revolutionary teaser demo released last August that had everyone raving about what the future could hold. Was, because it’s gone now. When Konami showed a concerning amount of publisher power to remove PT from the PlayStation Store, even robbing gamers of the privilege of re-downloading this refreshingly modern little slice of survival horror, many of us were pissed. And not only in a “I really wanted to play this game and feel they owe it to me” kind of way, though granted there was some of that.

There was a deeper sense of artistic loss here; a larger context in which the flippant removal and apparent lack of care for a ‘demo’ that, for some, honestly felt like something of a milestone for the industry, upset the delicate balance of a medium already uncertain of its own integrity and value. What has become clear is that players felt PT represented more than a simple ‘means to an end’ – that it had value independent of the parent game it was intended to advertise. Konami did not seem to anticipate that and I have my doubts over whether they’ll come round to eventually realising it.

They are a business first and foremost, after all, and it seems once the potential for profit was removed from the PT situation, the game was no longer considered to be of any value by the very company responsible for making it. I talked last time about the stark future this industry faces if games are not preserved and treated with more respect; one would think their creators typically first in line to ensure this happens. Video games will only begin to be viewed as ‘art’ in a wider context when those within the industry start at least pretending they can have that kind of value, even if they are not quite there yet.

All of this interlinks, of course, with what came next. Konami soon announced their intention to switch company-wide focus in order to ‘aggressively pursue’ gaming on mobile platforms, based on current industry trends. Most of us cringed. The story sounded almost like a parody; some kind of satire about the capitalist state of the modern day gaming industry – because while we all knew the rather obvious reasons behind such a move, many of us didn’t dare believe a gaming company could so drastically change course for the simple sake of profit.

It means a hard truth that some would have suspected beforehand, now looks set to become a cold reality: that Konami, like the vast majority of mainstream gaming companies, are in the business primarily – maybe only – for the prospect of making money.

As for creating a well-made work of art to be proud of? Surely pales in comparison with the much more sustainable method of free-to-play mobile games in which gamers are encouraged to spend consistently over a period of time. No longer are one-off purchases for hard copies deemed an acceptable practise, it seems – that’s being discouraged from almost every corner of the industry. Though I wonder if I ever would have given any interest to this medium if it had been like this fifteen years ago?

Paid DLC, pre-order bonuses, games being rushed out unfinished to cash in on a quick buck… these are relatively recent trends that will eventually kill consumer interest in gaming, ordered by tight-fisted company bosses who probably have an impressive resume of outside success within business. They’ll have regular board meetings where they come up with new, creative ways to squeeze money out of their costumers, because that is, after all, pretty much their job description…

Is this all that the video game industry has to look forward to though? If progression means ‘investing’ in managers who certainly know a lot about making a profit but little about the essence of video gaming itself, then I’m not so sure I want to continue being a part of it. Many others feel the same way, and this may be the beginning of a slow death for video games if the industry does not soon take heed.

Konami, the company behind some of the most revolutionary titles the industry has ever seen, has decided that their future lies in mobile titles like Candy Crush. The latter doesn’t require a huge budget to make, yet its addictive qualities and constant carrot-dangling of added extras and bonuses (for a small price) mean projected profit margins are presumed to be very high. Though one can’t quite imagine Candy Crush, and the numerous other titles exactly like it, being celebrated as ‘artistic’ hundreds of years from now. At least, I’d certainly hope not.

The near future is bright for Konami’s bank account, one would think. But I wonder whether they might go down in video game history for far more negative reasons after this.

Or maybe, in the end, I’m just coming across as a bit of a snob about the whole thing. Perhaps I am finally, once and for all, becoming a part of the nostalgic generation that looks below itself and doesn’t like what it sees. “They don’t make them like they used to”, or “those young ones should have more respect” – are these sentiments I’m in danger of embracing?

Possibly. But I’ve realised that might not be such a bad thing; not in this case anyway. If the future of the entire gaming industry is exemplified in sneaky games of Candy Crush while waiting for the bus, and little else of note, then I’m afraid it’s a future I don’t like the look of. If on the other hand you think you’d prefer it that way, then… you’re entitled to your opinion, of course. Unfortunately it probably means you’ve never played Silent Hill 2 (2001), because games are not supposed to be mature and that was the kind of game which instead dared to strive for something more, but hey, just go ahead, remain happy and ignorant of what this industry could have been. Go on living your life and don’t bother worrying about this issue or even giving it a second thought.

For the rest of us: we riot (online).

Silent Hills pic 2.

Dad was such a drag. Every day he’d eat the same kind of food, dress the same, sit in front of the same kind of games… Yeah, he was just that kind of guy. But then one day, he goes and kills us all! He couldn’t even be original about the way he did it. I’m not complaining… I was dying of boredom anyway. But guess what? I will be coming back, and I’m bringing my new toys with me.”

Rewind to last August and you may remember when I posted this article about a particular Playable Teaser (PT) that had the entire video game industry falling over itself to have its say on the hype.

At that point it all looked so promising. I got caught up in it like everyone else. In fact I still recall the morning I found out the news. Silent Hill (as we once knew it) was coming back, with a cinematic auteur, well known American actor and video gaming pioneer in tow. This was big news, even for those who had not previously been fans of the series – partly because it had been so long since this once celebrated series had seen anything truly worth celebrating.

Yes, it had been a decade since the days when a new Silent Hill game was worth looking forward to. In that time we’ve had two average-at-best movies and various American iterations bearing its name; fast food versions of the classic titles from the series’ Japanese origins.

The original Silent Hill, released for the PlayStation in 1999, and its first sequel (2001) remain two of my all-time favourite video games. My review for Silent Hill 2, first written around four years ago, is still my personal favourite of all the ones I’ve written since, including all those I’ve done for films.

Another one of my favourite games from that time was Metal Gear Solid, a cinematic masterpiece in gaming terms, along with its sequel which first gave me a taste of just how convoluted storytelling can be. Its creator, writer and director? Hideo Kojima, who looked set to be the creative force behind this new Silent Hill alongside acclaimed film director Guillermo del Toro.

A glimpse of what could have been produced from such prestigious minds is (or more appropriately, was) showcased in PT. So you’ll forgive me for having initially gotten a little carried away over last year’s big announcement.

Survival horror has been (or again, was) one of video gaming’s signature genres, a style unique to this medium and unable to be recreated in films due to its very nature (the whole point rests on you being in control as the player). Those first few Silent Hill titles owned and defined it. But the genre itself proved too niche to thrive as yearly iterations of first person shooters and open world, free roaming titles began to form a stranglehold on the industry.

It is precisely because of this – survival horror has not seen a title worthy of its tag for at least a decade (though some faster paced, action oriented games have tried to bastardise the label during the interim) – that PT proved such a big standalone hit, not just with fans of the series but with a whole new audience less familiar with its roots. The experience felt fresh, like something different from anything else currently on the market, because it hinted at a return to vintage survival horror and presented only a taste of what that could be like.

Therefore if there are any positives to be found in the following situation, it is that one or two developers have hopefully seen this potential niche in today’s gaming market. Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed may still be selling well but there are a large number of us who are profoundly bored with what’s being offered in the mainstream.

All of that is no more than speculative thinking, though. None of it really matters right now, because Silent Hills has been officially cancelled and the main question everyone seems to be asking is: why? Why has its publisher, Konami, taken the decision to cancel what would surely have been one of their most commercially successful titles in recent years? Why go so far as to pull the PT demo from the PlayStation Store, and try to erase any record of the game’s existence? What exactly does it all mean?

Well, the thing is, no one really knows. No one outside of Konami that is – and they don’t seem willing to divulge too many details. A situation started brewing over there back in March when it emerged that, following the completion of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima would be leaving the company after 30 years working for them. This immediately prompted questions and rumours regarding the future of Silent Hills, which of course also had Kojima’s name attached to it.

No further information was given on that (for a lot of people, rather important) issue until about a month later, when del Toro was quoted on Twitter as saying “it’s not gonna happen and that breaks my greasy heart” in reference to the game, swiftly followed by a tweet from Norman Reedus appearing to confirm the suspicion – see the story here.

Probably feeling their hand had been forced, Konami finally made a statement about the matter the following day (April 27th), confirming what many of us had feared: Silent Hills was cancelled after all. However, from there things were just about to get a little more complicated… and instead of drawing a line under the situation, Konami proceeded to upset their fan base yet further.

You see, during all of this we still had the consolation of that PT demo; the very same that had everyone in such a flurry last year and indirectly the main cause of our subsequent disappointment. If we were not going to get the full game then at least we could eventually learn to be content with this snack-sized glimpse of it, right?

Not quite. Big bad Konami decided they wanted to rewrite history altogether and take that away from us, too. The demo ‘expired’ from the PlayStation Store on April 29th, with Konami moving to prevent anyone from re-downloading it even if it was already attached to their account.

Now I should clarify here that I don’t think Konami ‘owes’ me, or anyone else, anything. They’re under no obligation to make us a game. They’re not a charity, nor did anyone actually pay money for PT (though they may have to if they wish to play it from this point on…) and really, they’re missing out just as much as we are when you think of all the money that gamers were eagerly lining up to hand over in order to play this game. You may be upset about it, but a publisher is within its rights to cancel a game when no one has paid any cash for it yet, much as many people would have liked to if given the choice. There has been no legally binding contract or agreement broken.

The cancellation itself, while undeniably one of the most disappointing announcements of the year so far, is not the problem. Rather there is a wider issue here, brought to the surface by Konami’s decision to withdraw PT from availability and their attempt to nullify its relevance, or even proof of its existence. That issue is to do with one word on which the future of the entire video game industry could hinge: preservation.

Of course, I’d heard the warnings before. I knew the potential for an issue like this to arise at some point and the detriment it could be to the industry long term, like a ticking time bomb waiting to be set off. And I wonder if Konami have now, perhaps unintentionally, set such wheels in motion.

This is really the first time it has affected a lot of people – who are now angry that a piece of work they saw (if I may be so bold) as artistically significant is seemingly lost, unable to be experienced by anyone else in future the same way it was experienced by so many gamers over this past year. That frightening thought is what hurts most.

It’s also the most important point. The fact that a demo, for a game no longer due to be released, has been removed from availability may seem logical from the outside; an issue not worth much attention because its commercial purpose in the first place was only to advertise something else. If we look at it only from a commercial standpoint, that’s true. Surely it makes sense, after all – it means people won’t come along in future and feel puzzled over why the demo ends with an announcement for a game that doesn’t exist.

There was a game here...

There was a game here…

A lot of people feel this wasn’t just a casual demo, though. In fact it wasn’t even a demo in the traditional sense. Actually it was the first ever interactive, playable teaser. Most other teasers typically consist of FMV sequences or brief videos of gameplay – kind of similar to the format for a film trailer. PT was arguably a prime example of what the video game equivalent should be.

Players also went into this teaser demo not knowing what game it was supposed to be advertising – or whether it was advertising any game. It needn’t have done so at all; the experience was unique enough to stand on its own merit had it not turned out to have an attachment to the as-yet-unannounced Silent Hills (though that did of course help it garner more hype in hindsight).

Thus, you can hopefully start to see where the main issue lies. It is not commercial, but an aesthetic one. Some have been arguing for years that video games deserve to be treated as art. If that case (and I believe it’s a strong one) is ever to be taken seriously, it needs to start from within the industry. Not that I’m saying publishers should try to force the issue – but at the moment they certainly aren’t doing much to help it. What is one of the defining features of art, whether it be a painting, a film, or literature? Being able to preserve it for future generations, of course.

This is not something the video game industry is currently in the habit of doing – unless it represents a profitable opportunity, as is the case with the recent trend of HD re-releases of popular older titles (something I don’t have much of a problem with, if only for this very reason). But usually, older hardware and software is deemed close to obsolete by the time we get to the next console generation.

My trusty old 60gb PS3, purchased on its UK release day in March 2007 (a long time in technological terms), still has backwards compatibility, meaning it’s able to play discs from the previous two console generations. This feature was gradually phased out, however, with later models sacrificing it to focus on more progressive areas (usually related to graphical capability) and there was no mention of it when the PS4 appeared on the market. Not an issue for many gamers, who prefer to look forward rather than back, but I think it could ultimately turn out to be shortsighted.

It is perpetuated as well by yearly iterations of the biggest (or more appropriately, ‘bestselling’) games. Who seriously still plays Fifa ’07 after all, when there have been around eight further updates of the game since then? Certainly, living in the past is not cool if one wants to be a relevant Fifa or Call of Duty aficionado, and if you’re one of the major publishers, these guys represent your core demographic. So why not cater to them if your main job is to generate significant end-of-year sales?

These issues are less serious than the one confronting us presently, though the trends typical of this industry are partly what have led us here. Now, developers and publishers are attempting to move away from selling hard copies of games at all, and into the murky waters of ‘digital distribution’. They prefer this because it essentially offers them greater control over what gamers get for their money. Rarely are modern AAA titles simple one-off purchases any more, with ‘day one patches’ frequently released to cover bugs that developers didn’t have time to fix before the completion deadline set forth by their bosses… and that’s just the beginning:

Digital distribution, as Konami demonstrated, has a dark side, in that a company can yank a game offline at any point for whatever reason” – PC Mag article.

This is the essence of the PT controversy. It shows the video game industry is heading in a dangerous direction. It means this issue has become bigger than the Silent Hills cancellation, and the story has probably become much bigger than Konami intended.

PT is gone because they said so, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. Remember what I said before about Konami not owing us? That is painfully true. As the content providers, they’re entitled to cease production when they see fit. But it means, in this new format, many years from now when those limited hard drives on which this Playable Teaser is now exclusively stored have broken down, the game will be lost in digital space.

... it's gone now.

… it’s gone now.

creative expression pic.

It was a significant Christmas/ New Year season for this thing we call artistic expression. Over the months of December and January we’ve seen a petition succeed in getting Grand Theft Auto V withdrawn from certain outlets in Australia and New Zealand; The Interview have its initial release cancelled due to terrorist threats from a group linked with North Korea; Hatred get pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation from its service users in an unprecedented act from Valve; and of course, the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in response to an offensive printed cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

Two of these I have previously touched on – the second in another article I wrote at the time. The third received least mainstream attention out of the four, due no doubt to the much smaller scale of its publisher. The last has been written about, spoken about, dissected and argued over at length over the past month and hardly needs my input to say anything that hasn’t already been said.

Together, though, all of these situations form an interesting narrative of where art, and the artists producing it, stand going forward into the rest of this century. On the one hand you may argue recent events show greater attempts at control and inhibition; a subsequent lack of freedom to say what one truly feels needs to be said. But conversely I think the reactions to all of them are what the future will focus on – what it will see, is an outcry in defense of things like decision-making and the right to hold your own individual thoughts and opinions. What some perspective will show is, in fact, a victory for the sides that came under attack in these instances.

That’s not to say it didn’t come with a high price. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, their freedom of expression came at the terrible, unjustified price of eleven lives. Yet if those same journalists who were murdered could be given the choice, I’m not sure they would’ve changed anything about what led to their deaths – to do so with such foreknowledge, would have been to say this sort of violence actually works. Whether or not you agreed with their decisions or their opinions, you must realise that for them to have then changed their opinion on threat of death, if they had been given the option, would not have been a victory for anything but fear.

It all sounds so absurd. You can’t force someone to change an opinion to suit your own – sure, you can try fooling them into it using propaganda, and if you must do so that’s certainly the classier method, but there is a good reason this hasn’t led to lasting success for those groups or governments that have relied on it. Sooner or later, people wise up to it. Sooner or later they begin to see behind the curtain. At that point they will arrive at an important choice; whether to form (and act on) an opinion of their own, or stay quiet for (perhaps) the sake of their lives, at the expense of all that makes them a unique individual.

However, I’m jumping ahead of myself there. And I don’t want this post to bear too much of a condemnatory tone, as the best way to fight the forces you disagree with is not through empty threats or angry, isolated statements, but rather with balanced, persuasive arguments and (ideally) evidence to back them up. Such conviction is what drives me to use my free time to do this kind of thing, after all.

Let’s start at the beginning – of December, that is, when the first of these newsworthy topics emerged.

December 3rd/4th: Target AU, K-mart and a major retailer in New Zealand pull Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves because it is apparently “not a product our customers want us to sell”. This was due to a petition started on 29th November and clearly written by people who had never played the game but were keen to sensationalise its contents to suit their own ends. By 3rd December, this petition had 40,000 signatures. On 4th December, Target AU withdrew the game from its shelves as requested, though precisely why they were doing so remained unclear. If it was to protect the ‘little boys’ whom the petition claimed this game was having such a bad influence on, then they should not have been marketing a clearly 18-rated game towards that demographic in the first place.

Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market...

Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market…

In their subsequent statement in response to the petition, Target AU seemed to imply they were making this decision to satisfy their customers following “extensive community and customer concern about the game”. However, this petition did not actually represent the majority view of their customers, and there was no indication given that Target had widened the net to take other views into account.

Moreover the woman who started the petition did so after seeing clips of the game on YouTube. One does not need to look too closely at it to get a sense of the offence caused by said ‘YouTube clips’ (we can’t account for the possible bad taste of the gamer who posted them, nor can we really know whether they were in bad taste or if the petition is simply exaggerating, and forgive me for being cynical but I’d place my bets on the latter). It claims in the opening paragraph that “the incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points”, going on to say “GTA V literally makes a game of bashing, killing and horrific violence against women”, while it “links sexual arousal and violence”.

Wow, that sounds like a pretty horrific game. Maybe I’d sign a petition too if such a game was really being marketed towards boys. The trouble is, that description is not representative of Grand Theft Auto V in the slightest. While it is possible to kill people (men and women) in the game, this alone is not its overall ‘incentive’. Furthermore I’m confused by the use of the term ‘sexual violence’. True, you can choose to sleep with prostitutes. True you have the capability to commit violence against them if you really wish (just as you can do so against most other people in the game world).

However, this is not encouraged or seen as mandatory in order ‘to proceed’, and the two acts are not directly linked at all. It is possible to have sex (though the act is never explicitly shown) and commit violence but to commit ‘sexual violence’? It sounds like you’re making up your own narrative there.

GTA V’s ‘health point’ system, if that primitive term is what we’re using, isn’t linked to killing or violence in the game, nor is there any special reward for treating women as the petition describes, and in fact there is much more violence committed against men than women in the overall plot.

Also I must clarify, if further clarification is needed, that in my own experience of a very enjoyable play through of Grand Theft Auto V, at no point did I myself feel outwardly violent, or abusive towards women, and certainly not sexually aroused by such things – nor did the game ever intentionally try to spark these connections in the mind of its player. If other gamers have these experiences while playing then I’d daresay they have certain underlying issues that have nothing to do with the game itself and should probably seek help, or at least have a (presumably) much-needed conversation with someone they trust. And as an actual player and consumer of this product, frankly I feel more qualified than the petition’s author, who is neither of those, to determine its potential qualities and the effects it can have on other gamers.

Basically I’m trying to highlight that this petition is blatantly misrepresentative of the game, and this kind of thing is especially important to me because it itself is representative of a larger consensus that video games serve no better purpose than playthings for little children and adolescent boys. Furthermore it tries again to link violence in video games with violence in real life (for which there is literally no evidence in support). This is all summed up in one seemingly authoritative yet grossly misleading statement from the petition; “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women”.

You may be one who also finds the content of GTA V to be crude and offensive. You may find the very idea of what it lets you do through your own free will to be abhorrent. That’s your opinion, and it’s fine. You don’t have to buy the game or expose yourself to it if you have no wish to do so. However, when you then see a petition like this you may feel excited by the fact that other people agree with you, and more than that; they are claiming this game is a great burden and possible danger to your sons and daughters. Future generations are at stake and it requires action! And when it’s put to you like this, your inclination of not liking this game, or any game in general, could be only one small step away from subsequently branding them all evil and thinking you need to ‘protect’ future generations from their influence.

See how easily people can get caught up in something because it was presented to them in a convincing way? But make no mistake: this petition is based on no evidence, therefore should not have been successful, and the only way it got so much support was through fear-mongering in its use of sensationalised wording.

...don't you agree?

…don’t you agree?

In normal circumstances sales figures would tell a retailer whether or not customers are happy with a particular product. After all, if you don’t like a product, you don’t buy it, and by not buying it you are not supporting it, and this is ultimately the deciding factor for any business when it comes to the decision-making process of which products they should continue selling. I realise that high sales figures don’t necessarily correlate with the best products (as someone who still loses sleep over the fact that the general public contributed to Transformers: Age of Extinction becoming 2014’s highest grossing film, it hurts me as much as anyone), but it is still the right of the consumer to decide for themselves what they give their money to. In this case the consumer’s decision was taken out of their hands, and that’s the main problem.

Having said that, this decision – even more curious considering it came over a year after GTA V’s original release on PS3 – by these few retailers on the other side of the world will have no lasting impact on the game’s success in the long run. Grand Theft Auto V is still the bestselling entertainment product of all time, and that will be its legacy. What’s important here is the principle of the matter – what it could mean for smaller publishers and studios who don’t have the kind of commercial success behind them that the GTA series has. Which brings me to our second case study…

December 15th: A video game called Hatred, developed by the appropriately named Destructive Creations, is pulled from Steam Greenlight after briefly appearing on the service. Now, for those who are not PC gamers, this will need a little explanation; Steam Greenlight is a service through which gamers can help choose which games are added to Steam (hence being given the ‘green light’). Steam itself is a digital distribution service – basically somewhere gamers can go to download current releases. So Greenlight is kind of like a preview service to the real thing, partly to gauge how a game may be received but mainly just to check that it actually works gameplay-wise.

Developed by a company called Valve, Steam is very much a service for the users. However, on this occasion, Hatred was pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation with its users. So the users, who usually decide which games to approve, were for some reason (which remained unclear) not allowed to make the decision for themselves this time around. This was a pretty unprecedented move by Valve, as far as I know.

Further context gives us a hint as to what they may have been thinking. Hatred is, after all, a pretty unprecedented game itself, at least as far as its content is concerned. In it you play as a merciless serial killer who goes on a ‘genocide crusade’ for no reason other than that he passionately hates humanity. Sounds tasteless, I know, and probably not a game I’ll be investing my time in at any point soon, but I’d still argue that it is important for games to be able to touch on these kinds of things without people suddenly concluding that gamers “can’t handle it”.

Hatred pic 1.

Psychopaths have been portrayed in movies for many years, so why are games seen as inferior in the topics they’re permitted to tackle? You could argue it’s different because a game actually puts you directly in control of a character rather than observing from a distance, but I think this makes games more effective, not less, at tackling taboo issues. The idea that one is going to turn into a serial killer purely from playing this game is rather absurd, considering how unattractive the experience is, and someone who has the capacity to genuinely enjoy killing other people will have, as I said before, other issues that will be present regardless of the media they’re exposed to.

If anything, allowing one to experience the effects of such things first-hand, in the direct shoes of a character, is more likely to put you off ever wanting to try it in real life, providing it’s done effectively courtesy of good game development (as a side note, there is actually closer evidence to suggest this kind of thing than there is for the ‘video games cause violence’ argument).

Think of rape, for example. Yeah you may cringe at my mentioning it and you might not like even thinking about it, but that taboo right there is precisely why so many rapists get away with their crime, and predominantly why so many people are disgusted when video games even dare suggest approaching it. To tackle the issue, to show the horrible impact it can have on a woman, or indeed a man, is a very good thing if it helps to educate those who perhaps don’t appreciate the awful psychological effects it can lead to in a person’s life. Video games have the potential to explore this in even greater detail than films ever could, if they’re given the freedom to do so, precisely because they do put you directly in the shoes of a character.

I firmly believe video games must be given this liberty, to achieve these kinds of effects and truly take their place alongside books and films as a respected artistic medium. Yet despite being at a development stage where they do have the capacity to tackle such topics, they’re being creatively stifled by a mainstream society that still thinks any game which doesn’t appeal to children or teenage boys is somehow inappropriate. For as long as that mode of thinking persists, publishers and developers are going to be much less confident in their creative freedoms.

Curiously, on December 16th, only a day after Hatred was removed from Steam by Valve, it reappeared with a personal apology from Gabe Newell (co-founder and managing director of Valve). Was he not involved in the original decision? What were their reasons for taking it down in the first place? Such questions remain unanswered, leaving us to fill in the rather obvious blanks, and the game was subsequently approved to Steam on December 29th. As far as its sales figures go, time will tell on that one. But whatever the reaction from the industry, the least this game will do is get people talking about issues they could easily have gone without talking about, and I think that can only be a good thing in the long run.

You're up, Kim Jong...

You’re up, Kim Jong…

December 16th/17th: Sony pulls American ‘action comedy’ film The Interview from theatrical distribution before it’s even released. Another somewhat unprecedented move that I have already covered, though there is some helpful further context I could set…

In June 2014, the North Korean government, having gotten wind of the film’s production, threatened ‘merciless action’ if the film’s distributor (Columbia Pictures) went ahead with the release. Thus release was delayed from the original date of October 10th to December 25th, while the film was apparently edited to make it more ‘acceptable’ to North Korea (this itself, if true, was an absurd concession, though the planned Christmas day release was perhaps a sign that certain powers sought to maximise profits from their headline-making film). In November, Sony’s computer systems were hacked by a group believed to have ties to North Korea, the “Guardians of Peace” (GoP), who branded the film a “movie of terrorism”.

On December 16th, the GoP threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that dared show the film. No evidence existed to suggest they even had the means of carrying out said attacks, though the threat alone was enough for a number of North American cinema chains to cancel screenings ‘in the interest of safety’ on December 17th. Sony it seems had ‘no choice’ but to cancel the film’s release – after all, they would have been left with a pretty farcical situation if they had went ahead with it but cinemas refused to actually screen it.

Despite initially saying it had no plans to release the film, Sony has since done so digitally and opened the film in a limited run in selected cinemas. It has consequently become Sony’s most successful digital release, earning $40 million in digital rentals alone. While they may still ultimately lose out on the money they could have gained with a full theatrical run, there’s no question that The Interview’s unorthodox publicity has played a large part in boosting sales for what is actually, from all accounts, a rather average movie. So ultimately, we could justifiably ask: who’s the real victor in this situation?

The film has also, somewhat abruptly, arrived on UK shores (literally; it opened theatrically today). I inevitably feel inclined to see it myself for a review, at which point I will give my final thoughts on what it potentially means for a film industry in which an average movie can become the most talked about of the year, while something like The Babadook goes largely under the radar. In that sense there is an injustice here.

In another sense, though, it was incredibly encouraging to see prominent public figures, including President Barack Obama, stand up for the right to make such a movie as this, even though it does contain offensive content from North Korea’s point of view. While we could question whether someone like Obama was speaking up more because the precious pride of his country was at stake (it was, after all, a little humiliating that North Korea was essentially holding their film industry at ransom), this vocal support for ‘freedom of expression’ was nonetheless a heartening reminder of how highly regarded movies have become in modern culture. They can now offend entire countries and be defended for their right to do so.

To be ‘offended’ in this way is perhaps not quite the great injustice some make it out to be – in fact usually we can learn a lot from sensing it within ourselves – and even if it was, this again represented a simple case of “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it”. We know ultimately, of course, North Korea didn’t want the film to be shown only because it could harm the god-like status their leader holds, thanks to the intense propaganda created by their government. Is showing this status to be potentially false an ‘offence’? From some within North Korea, it certainly is. Does this make it wrong for a movie like The Interview to contain such provocative suggestions?

Whether you think it wrong or not is beside the point; being permitted to make this distinction for ourselves in the first place is the real point. And it is the very idea of this kind of conversation happening at all that North Korea found inherently offensive, which represents the real problem. This leads on nicely to my final case, which actually bears a few striking similarities to this one.

Now before I continue, perhaps it is best that I preface the following with a caution. I know some of you reading this may feel stronger about the Charlie Hebdo situation than you felt about the previous cases. I am no exception.

Not only would I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right of freedom to print the offensive Muhammad cartoon that led to this tragedy, I also unequivocally think it was the right thing to do artistically, for similar reasons as I have detailed above relating to how North Korea views its god-like leader. The situations are largely similar; the main difference here is that we live among Muslims in our own country. It can be a little more difficult when those voicing their offence are somewhat closer to home.

But when it comes to how we view religion there exists another taboo, both inside and out, that says their own respective god-like figure should somehow be immune to the critique and (dare I say) satiric mockery that we would apply to most other things deemed more ‘acceptable’ targets. This is largely due, I think, to the negative arguments, insults and bitterness that already exist in interactions between certain groups and their subsequent need to become vigorously defensive over their own beliefs – some of which dictate that all others must be wrong. If Charlie Hebdo has shown us anything, it is that this current climate has to change (and ‘Je suis Charlie’ may just be the spark that triggers it) – because these murders ‘in the name of…’ are exemplary of how dangerous it can be.

I’m not saying you need to simply ‘get used to it’ or that you have to like opposing views to your own. The same rules apply to the likes of a Charlie Hebdo magazine as in any other situation; if you find it offensive, you’re under no obligation to give it your support or your attention. But you must accept that other people will, and other people do, and this is within their freedom of choice to do so. You have no right, for as long as you are human like the rest of us, to take that away from them. You’re welcome to give them reasons why they shouldn’t support something or give it their attention, but when you start using unnecessarily dramatic language and picking things out of thin air to pass of as ‘facts’ in support of your own biased argument (as was the case in the above GTA V petition), you are being dishonest not only with that other person, but with yourself. I understand it’s tempting to do this kind of thing when you feel passionate about a particular subject, but in relaxing it a little more, it’s not unthinkable you could actually learn something new from those you would otherwise consider your opponents.

This train of thought all stems from an incident on January 7th at 11.30am: two masked gunmen, armed with assault rifles, force their way into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They fire 50 shots while shouting “Allah Akbar” (Arabic for ‘God is the greatest’), killing 11 people and injuring 11 others.

On January 11th, about two million people including more than 40 world leaders gather in Paris for a rally of national unity – a further 3.7 million people joined in demonstrations across France. The phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ became a common slogan to show solidarity and support for those involved in the tragedy and communicate one clear message: our freedom of expression is worth defending in principle, even when we don’t necessarily agree on how to use it.

The remaining Charlie Hebdo staff team has continued weekly publications; issue No. 1178 sold out a print run of seven million copies in 6 languages. This is in contrast to its typical French-only 60,000 run. Again this is exemplary of the aggressor’s tactics backfiring on them; in the modern era, with the news coverage that a story of this kind receives, a tragic story inevitably turns into profitable publicity. Sentiment is a powerful marketing tool, after all.

Many more people have witnessed the Muhammad cartoon now than would ever have been the case otherwise. Those who killed in his name have only succeeded in degrading it further, rather than instilling the fear they sought to create. Ultimately, Charlie Hebdo has become a kind of martyr for free speech; in the end it seems quite the opposite of the death knell for ‘freedom of expression’ that some have made it out to be.

Yet in their first issue after the attack the remaining team didn’t call for any reaction except forgiveness, alongside a tearful cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover. No, this wasn’t a stubborn sign that they wouldn’t back down; it was a sign of solidarity, not against Islam, but with it (albeit in their signature satiric style, which looks likely to remain intact going forward). For all the criticism that has gone their way since this incident happened, I think it was the classiest response they could’ve given. Not one of fear, but of forgiveness, humour and even an offer of friendship, from a team that have lost many of their own closest friends.

But I don’t find their ‘humour’ funny, you may respond. And here’s a little secret: neither did I. The cover that provoked this whole situation isn’t exactly hilarious, or even well drawn (perhaps that was the problem). Heck, like most of you I had no idea this magazine even existed until a few weeks ago. I didn’t care before all of this happened and I’m not suddenly rushing to buy a subscription now. They can go back to their own niche market when all of this has subsided and none of you have to endorse them or pay them any more attention. Ironically, I think religious extremism has already done enough of that in this case.

Whether their style is to your own personal taste or not is, again, beside the real point. This entire post covers my best attempts to explain why, and moreover, what that real point actually is. But perhaps one final ironic comparison will help, both to punctuate what I’ve been trying to illustrate and to eradicate any suspicion of bias you may have of me.

You see, I’m far from the only one to have realised the ignorance of that GTA V petition. It was exemplary of how much you can distort the image of something when you take certain parts of it out of context. And there were some hilarious tongue-in-cheek responses to it, as many other people started coming up with absurd petitions of their own to highlight the faults of the original (satire once again proving it’s the best mode of cutting through that mythical curtain).

None of them highlighted this to better effect than this petition to ‘withdraw the Holy Bible from shelves’, which uses much of the same language as the GTA V version (and incidentally has 62,000 supporters to GTA V’s 48,000). Like its GTA counterpart, it takes the Bible completely out of context, portraying it in a way that seems more bloody, more violent and more abusive to women than GTA V could ever be. And you know what? When you decide to play by these rules, that’s exactly what the Bible becomes; a bloody, violent, misogynistic text.

If you’re a Christian yourself, you can probably recall a point when you’ve been left frustrated by others labelling the Bible in this way. Gamers who’ve played and know GTA V well, will feel a similar way when people put the kind of ignorant labels on video games that this GTA V petition did. If you can understand that thanks to such a tongue-in-cheek illustration, then we likely find ourselves on the same page in relation to everything else I’ve talked about here. Or maybe not, and that’s fine too.

Conversations are fine, and many opinions have been changed because of them. But one must understand that for someone else to have a different opinion to you is also fine, and changing it accordingly should be their choice to do so. If they do that because you’ve won them round with a persuasive case, that’s great; certainly a better victory than if you’d done so through deception.

I think most of us would agree on that. But if, perhaps, you’re one who thinks you already have all the right answers to which you must only ‘win others round’ using the occasional scare tactic, word trickery or verbal abuse, I’m afraid you may be left frustrated, even disappointed, by the direction society is heading in.