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

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Quick (or not so quick) Update.

Here’s what I have planned for this blog in the near future, in case anyone thought I’d given up on it.

Video games: my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series is still ongoing. Next on my to-do list are two of the greatest horror video games of all time, and two of my favourite games in general: the original Silent Hill (1999) and its 2001 sequel. I figured it would be fitting to get both of these out – or at least one – by the end of the month, as we are in ‘Halloween’ month after all.

Speaking of which, around Halloween time last year, while I was making the case for why the horror genre is not only great but essential, I promised another film essay, focusing on The Babadook. Granted, I kind of slipped on this one, though it’s always been on the backburner, and hopefully I will also have it out by the end of October. Believe me, I’ve thought so much about this film – my top film of 2014 – that it won’t be too difficult getting a detailed analysis down in coherent words and clicking publish. I had in fact already started working on it around this time last year.

Looking back in my ‘film essay’ category I see that I haven’t in fact published one here since last July, which really is too long, especially considering I was going along at a pace of around one per month up until then. There are two others I have planned immediately following the next: Nightcrawler and Ex Machina, arguably two of the most overlooked films of the past couple of years, and certainly two of my absolute favourites, so I want to do them some justice.

Originally I had planned my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series to, like my plan for film essays, proceed along at a pace of around one per month. Obviously that hasn’t happened for various reasons – not that I’ve just been sitting around, rather I’ve had other things to focus on in the time being – so what I’m going to do with that is, at the very least, get out the two Silent Hill articles (because honestly writing about either of those is an almost limitless joy), then write up something about Final Fantasy VIII (1999), my favourite childhood game and one belonging to a series that frequently splits even its own fans. I’ll be making my case for why VIII, rather than its predecessor, was the peak of the series overall.

After those, I’ll assess whether it’s worth continuing ‘20 Years of PlayStation’ at all. In reality it will probably end with the year 2016 (as we will then technically be into 21 years and so on), and I’ll instead focus on more modern stuff again.

I’ve also been working on an article focusing on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sport, after a year in which we’ve seen a few high profile cases of doping offences and accusations. That one doesn’t entirely follow the politically correct narrative – I think along the lines of allowing some PED’s to be used in a controlled manner, rather than banning everything outright – but I’m writing it mainly to shed some light on the stuff that people tend to overlook when it comes to ‘cheating’ (the blanket term for any offence) in sport.

Otherwise, there are four other prominent ideas for articles that I want to finish and publish here by the end of the year. Those are, first: a piece tackling the issue of review ethics and people who deride critics for any reason, from simply being a butt-hurt fan to those who accuse us of just being ‘haters’ who don’t know how to enjoy stuff.

I have a strong belief when it comes to critique; that it should not tell you what to think about a film, video game, or whatever the product/ service may be, but rather it should help you develop how you think about them. Reviews above all should inform the consumer – they’re not about telling people what they should or shouldn’t enjoy as if there’s some objective standard. Something I love may be something you hate, because everyone has different tastes; but the detail I give about that thing should be enough to tell you how you’re going to feel about it, independent of my own opinion.

Linked to this but worthy of its own article, I’m going to go into the impact that films, video games and books have each had on me personally in terms of my own development. Certain aspects of modern society actively discourage critical thinking and open-mindedness – in fact, I think it’s always been like this, but today’s culture of political correctness means we hear things like “you can’t say that” more than ever, especially on social media (my advice: whatever kind of person you are, it’s healthy to have less of that in your life).

That’s why I think this is important. Art is vital for helping people think outside the confines of the masses; it’s why I value artistic integrity and freedom of expression so highly. Many people who have a single-minded approach to issues in life, on the other hand, don’t. I heard a statement recently that stuck with me: an open mind is a learning mind. Rarely has a truer statement been made throughout history.

My final two planned articles for the year have been an even longer time coming. They are: my Best Films of 2014, and Best Films of 2015.

Now, obviously I understand that most people who like to do this sort of thing prefer to do an ‘end of year’ list and leave it at that. It’s like a nice way to wrap up the year in film, but for me none of those lists are definitive. Not that I’m saying mine would be, though here’s the thing; I consider a film that comes out in 2014, regardless of where it first comes out, to be a 2014 film.

For example, a film released in the UK in, say, early 2015, yet features heavily in awards season, is undoubtedly a 2014 film (Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, for instance) – because the Academy Awards reward the best films of the previous year. Said film will have been out in the US a few months before, but many of us living elsewhere would not have had a chance to see it yet, and it is therefore, by default, left off the list.

From my perspective, then, to make a list at the end of a calendar year would feel a little silly, bordering on dishonest, as the best films released in the UK that year would only represent around half – if that – of the year’s best films overall. I like world cinema; films from Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. And usually it takes a year or so to catch up on films from those places as their releases gradually filter out across other regions. I prefer to include those in my lists, as I want the list to be as definitive and conclusive as possible.

The other thing to note is my dislike of limiting said lists to a ‘top ten’, again usually done for efficiency (I understand; critics are busy, and wrapping up a compact top ten list at the end of the year is simpler than the method I’m currently advocating). The ‘best’ films of a year may not be limited to just ten – or perhaps in an extremely dry year, there wouldn’t even be ten worthy of inclusion.

Now, most critics actually agree with this to an extent; hence why they do some ‘honourable mentions’ that don’t quite make the top ten. For me that’s curious (why name-drop if you’re not going to detail your reasons?) but again I sort of understand why one would – it saves time, and essentially a ‘top 10’ is more marketable than, say, a ‘top 13’. I have more flexibility in my personal schedule and don’t see why I would restrict myself in that way when I’m not required to.

So basically, my lists will feature the best films of each year, whether it’s 10, 12 or 15 movies long. The 2014 list is almost ready to go and realistically I hope to have that one posted here by the start of next month. 2015, hopefully by the end of the year, and as for my 2016 list, well, I’m thinking Summer 2017 at the earliest. The good thing is, as I’m about to hit another film festival – my second such event of the year – I’ll have a decent head start on a lot of the biggest films to feature in awards season coming up. I’ll probably be writing an article around Oscar time too that will give large hints as to the films I found most impressive over the past year.

One final thing… I plan to do brief film previews (yes I am capable of writing shorter pieces!) every Friday. This will give me an opportunity to look forward to some new movies that catch my eye – that won’t necessarily get the mainstream marketing treatment – and share it with you guys. I’m frequently finding new stuff to get excited about so there’ll be no shortage of things to write about here, and I figure it might be useful to have a category for which posts are regular and somewhat set in stone going forward. That way, one could turn up here every weekend and know they’re at least getting something new, even if I haven’t otherwise written anything of great existential meaning.

Speaking of existential meaning, I’m off to prepare for one of the best times of the year: London Film Festival.

Video Games

Silent Hills/ PT still haunts us… and it’s glorious.

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!

20 Years of PlayStation, Video Games

Metal Gear Solid 2: A postmodern deconstruction of 21st century culture.

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.

Video Games

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

Video Games

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.

Video Games

A few brief words on Satoru Iwata.

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.