At the start of this year, I made a slightly wild (and probably pointless) commitment to trying to whittle down my tbr. And, lo, the whittling was moderately successful – it’s now September and I’ve cut my unread books by about half, and written about some of the more interesting ones here on the blog (they’re helpfully gathered under the ‘reading’ category in case anyone gives a fuck). As with any project undertaken for its own sake, I’ve been fairly relaxed about tossing books aside if I didn’t feel I was getting anything out of them, and simply writing off things I was clearly never going to get round to ever. All of which is to say, I’m calling the undertaking a success and intend to continue with it, albeit perhaps not as rigidly as I have up til now.
Anyway, while dealing with my tbr, I realised something about my leisure time. I mean, apart from the fact I don’t have enough of it. But basically, for me, reading and playing computer games occupy the same mental space (maybe because I tend to play narrative-heavy games? I dunno) and essentially have the same affect, in terms of chilling me out and moving my Sim needs bars from the red to the green. Which, given the limitations on my time (self-imposed limitations I should say in that I’m a greedy fuck in that I apparently want two jobs, a relationship, friends and hobbies) means I can’t—and, actually don’t need—to do both. At least not simultaneously.
So I’ve recently been applying the “my old shit” principles to games as well as books. Last Christmas (oh God, how is September already?) was actually the first time I’d fully finished a game in ages—and the game, embarrassingly, was from 2012. It was Sleeping Dogs, okay? But I had a really nice time, and it was extraordinarily satisfying to experience the whole game, as opposed to the first ten hours, which is how it usually goes for me these days. I think it doesn’t help that I suffer from completionist tendencies, which means I’ll wind up obsessively trying to collect the 27 Golden Monkey Bollocks of Astigorth instead of, y’know, having fun with the parts of the game I actually enjoy playing and am invested in. And, since modern games are ever more preoccupied with justifying their price tag, there’s a lot of monkey testicles out there. But, having given myself permission to put aside books I’m not enjoying, I’ve tried to stop impeding my fun when it comes to computer games.
And with all due awareness that this is probably even less relevant to my readers than my usual babblings: here’s what I’ve been playing. Will probably contain some spoilers.
This was so spectacularly weird and sad I don’t quite know where to begin. It’s set on a ruined future-earth where human-built androids fight alien robots, while the survivors of the human race sit on the moon waiting until it’s safe to come home. Obviously the first conclusion you draw when you hear a premise like that—especially when you learn pretty much immediately that the only contact between the androids and the humans are audio broadcasts—is that there probably aren’t any people on the moon. So I don’t think it’s massive spoiler to say: there aren’t people on the moon. Which means what you’re left with is this really melancholy, peculiar game-entity-thing about androids and robots trying to define what it means to be human while trapped in ceaseless conflict with each other.
Oh, and the female androids dress as samurai French maids. Because obviously. Needless to say I’m pretty conflicted about the juxtaposition of lavish up-skirt shots and German philosophy—although, to be fair, they both make me feel like a teenager. I mean, Nier Automata is full of strange contradictions and connections, but it kind of says everything about gaming as a medium that you can have this quite beautiful, thought-provoking and ultimately compassionate story, which nevertheless wants to make sure you have ample opportunities to see the underwear of the female character you’re controlling.
Obviously your mileage may vary on the degree to which you find sword fighting in your lingerie titillating, an acceptable foible, or just fucking nonsense in the twenty first century. But if you can get past it, this game is … honestly like no other game I’ve ever played, and it’s a little hard to unpick the meaning of that, or ascribe a value to it, since novelty for its own sake isn’t inherently beneficial. The gameplay itself is of the jumpy-fighty-shooty variety, although it switches modes (from 3D to 2D, from ground to air, from fully realised to 8bit) with astonishing fluidity. I will say that Nier Automata doesn’t always respect your time: there’s a lot of running back and forth across the same environments, although annoyingly all that running about grants the geography familiarity and an emotional resonance that contributes to your sense of the world and the characters’ place in it. And you have to play whole game five times: yes you heard me, five times, although the first play through is by far the longest and the final three are substantially different from both each other and the first two.
Basically what it comes down to is: Nier Automata has a coherence of vision that makes the game feel genuinely artful in a way few games do. Which is not a criticism of games as whole—sometimes you just want to shoot things, and you don’t need an artistic purpose to achieve that. But it’s striking and fascinating when a game tries to do something … else. And Nier Automata very much does something … else. I legitimately ugly-cried a bunch of times. Came away tremendously moved, both by the game, and by human beings in general. And that’s, y’know, that’s something.
Also the soundtrack is fucking stunning, each track echoing the themes of the environment it represents.
Tales of Berseria
This is a jRPG—and I haven’t finished a jRPG for so long that I can’t actually remember the last jRPG I finished, so I’m extra chuffed that I finished this. Which makes it sound like playing it was some kinda task when that’s not the case at all. I actually romped through, if you can call 61 hours romped. Eeek, now I look it up, that seems a lot, but I didn’t notice the time at all.
I think what makes computer games especially difficult as … oh whatever you want to call them. a medium. an art form. an entertainment … is that they have to bring together some quite disparate elements and make them, if not equally engaging, at least not too great a hindrance for each other. Ideally you want the game to be fun to play and the story to be interesting enough to make you want to play and you can kind of get past shonky gameplay if the story is strong, or mediocre writing if you’re having a good time shooting stuff. But jRPGs run long, really long, so there’s even more pressure on your attention span. Generally, I tend to flake out of them because either the story is just too oblique, or the characters just too punchable, or the gameplay—which is usually running from plot point to plot point, encountering a random selection of monsters, which you defeat through some flavour of turn-based combat—is sufficiently repetitious that I can’t be bothered with it any more. But then I also haven’t been paying much attention to developments in the subgenre: we’re actually a long way from three people standing in a line waiting for their turn to attack or throw Phoenix Down over one of their mates. I didn’t get very far with Final Fantasy XIII because it was basically just a very beautiful corridor, but I seem to recall the combat was actually pretty dynamic, and involved fluidly swapping roles and characters, and then getting your face shot off because I didn’t play enough to get the hang of it.
Anyway, long story slightly less long: Tales of Berseria was a revelation to me. The combat is super super fun. I’m not entirely sure how it works—something to do with chaining artes that I was semi-competent with by the end of the game—but you press a lot of buttons, and you character charges around the battlefield in real time doing cool stuff, while your computer-controlled companions do the same, apparently quite adequately too. Basically, it’s loud and shiny, with lots of explosions and people yelling. I especially loved the yelling, and would gleefully yell along (PERFECT MAYHEM! MEGA SONIC THRUST!), which might partially explain my enthusiasm.
Storywise, I’m not 100% sure what it was actually about. But the game does a really good job of entwining the big gods and demons and churches and saving the world stuff with more personal themes and motivations. It’s also really dark: the heroine, Velvet Crowe, is actually a village girl, who becomes a demon when she witnesses her surrogate father figure sacrifice her sickly younger brother for … well … complex, not completely evil (although still quite ill-advised) reasons that become apparent later. So while the world does get saved, it’s more of a side-effect of Velvet’s personal quest for revenge. A quest on which she does some quite difficult and morally dubious things. And while “oh noes, my village, my family member, now I will lose touch with my humanity” is an incredibly obvious setup I was actually pretty moved by the whole business by the end. And Velvet herself is just awesome, being incredibly bad ass, and bitter as fuck. Part of her arc is, as you might expect, learning to care about people again, but what’s really interesting about it, at least to me, is that it’s also as much about accepting that we all have the capacity to do shitty things sometimes, and there is a necessary power in that, and that you’re still worthy of love and happiness regardless. I thought that was a pretty cool story for a female jRPG protagonist to be at the centre of. (Also, having kicked up a fuss about Nier Automata, I should probably say that Velvet’s default outfit is essentially a cape and some boots and a belt, but you can put her in some nice sensible trousers if you so wish.)
Also, unusually for me, I completely adored the supporting cast, perhaps partially because there wasn’t an army of them so they all had their place in the plot, their stories weaving through Velvet’s, and their choices reflecting on or contrasting against hers. And I guess I’m turning into a total sap in my old age because Laphicet—the angel child Velvet totally healthily names after her dead brother—is unbelievably adorable, and infuses the whole adventure with hope and wonder. Given the nature of the conflict, and the internal forces that drive the characters, the ending was bittersweet. But fitting.
Oh and in case I’ve given the impression of too much gloom and darkness: the character interactions in this game are delightful, and had me laughing on several occasions. Here’s the cursed pirate and the demon swordsman debating way too earnestly about what to call a bug.
The Witcher 3
So the 115 hours I’ve spent on The Witcher 3 plus its two expansions is making those 61 hours on Beseria look fairly limp right now. I don’t have anything to say about The Witcher games, the third one in particular, that hasn’t been said a million times before: these are a fucking remarkable achievement. Maybe one of the best games I’ve ever played. And the only reason I hadn’t finished the final piece of DLC, despite only having a couple of hours of it left, was because I simply wasn’t ready to let go.
Blood and Wine (the final expansion) is really more of an epilogue than anything, although there’s also plenty of story and monsters to kill. And what it offers, in a series that has always staunchly turned away from traditional heroism, is a happy ending for an old witcher who has kind of earned one. Most of the stories, large and small, that make up the games are ultimately exercises in compromise: yes you can break a curse, but the woman is still dead, yes you can defeat a monster, but others will come, yes you can try to do the right thing but greed and selfishness and the will to power can always motivate people more strongly than kindness or virtue.
But in pseudo-France, among the fairytales (literally in the case of one quest), Geralt gets to spend time with old friends, bring about a relatively optimistic resolution to the plot, and finally retire to a vineyard with the love of his life. It was an odd moment, as I galloped Roach (Geralt’s faithful steed) over that now familiar hill, just as the sun was setting, in far less bloody shades than in the main game, dismounted in the stables and jogged Geralt over to Yennefer’s side, knowing that when I logged out, it would likely to be for the very last time. Forgive me a moment of sentimentality, but it didn’t feel like I was stopping playing a game. It felt like I was saying goodbye to a world.
And if you haven’t read enough about the Witcher, here’s Kelly Jensen’s thoughts. Because there should be some sort of romance writers who like computer games type league.
Yeah, I know. This is weird. But I finished The Witcher 3 and realised I’d never finished the first game. I’ve always been at the tail end of a computer life cycle when a Witcher game comes out, so they’ve been borderline impossible to play on whatever wheezing machine I happened to own. I’ve made several attempts to play The Witcher properly since it was released (in 2007 – help, help, I’m old) but always bogged down somewhere in the middle, largely because deciding to replay a thing involves re-playing the bit of the game you’ve probably already played at least a couple of times before. Kind of like attempting to read Lord of the Rings: I always get to Rivendell, where they start having a committee meeting, and then give up.
Usefully I had a save game knocking around, where I’d pretty much completed the first chapter – the bit of the game I remember most vividly. So I picked up from where I’d left off and, perhaps partly because a game from 2007 now runs as smooth as butter on my computer, completed it. It’s quite different to the other two games, having much more in common with older school RPGs, and a lot more gratuitous boobs (which, for The Witcher, is saying something), but it gives a lot of context to what comes after. The story-telling is intricate and flavourful, though not quite as assured as later games, although it also has their hallmarks, like a willingness to just take a time out in order to do character work or let Geralt go a party.
Each of the chapters has a distinct flavour as well, the highlight for me actually being Chapter 2, which has a bad rap for being impenetrable. And it kind of is, but in a cool way. It’s the first city-based chapter and perhaps an example of ambition outstripping capacity because it essentially involves untangling a web of deceit that … is actually really webby, really tangled and really deceitful. And I do have vague memories of attempting it in the past and failing miserably—and not being quite sure why I was failing or what I missing. This time, having spent a decade honing my “play computer games” skillset, I figured it all out and felt pretty good about myself. Mystery-stuff in games is really, really hard to do well, even in games that are actively mysteries: and this, at least, has the benefit of being genuinely mysterious.
This is one of those games I’ve always heard people speak well of, but never got round to playing. Well, I got round to it, and I actually found it pretty amazing. Like Nier Automata it has a coherence of vision—I love games, obviously, and I don’t want to sound like I’m championing auteurship but Triple A games especially can often come across as a product. And while products do things, they’re not always about things. If that distinction makes sense. Mafia II is about things. And mainly what it’s about is that being in the mafia totally sucks.
The hero, Vito Scarletta, is the son of an Italian immigrant who essentially gets involved with the mafia not out of any great desire to be in the mafia but because he wants to earn money. And the opportunities available to him, as an Italian ex-con, ex-soldier in WWII-embroiled America, are pretty much negligible. The game spans about a decade—and whereas games usually cover an ascent to power of some kind, Vito basically claws his way to about the middle. Only to discover that much of what he thought he knew was a lie anyway, everything he’s accumulated can be taken away from him at any moment, and no matter how hard he works, the downward slide is a hell of a lot faster and easier than the uphill climb. It’s interesting and unusual, as is the way the gameplay itself contrives to reinforce just how unglamorous Vito’s life of crime truly is. Most open world games give you a city full of dazzling opportunities: playing as Vito Scarletta, the city around you is just your commute to work. And the work itself ranges from the mundane to the mundanely violent. There’s even another stint in prison for the relatively petty crime of forging gas stamps.
Again, I don’t want to get into stuff I really don’t have standing to talk about but: deconstruction of American dream yadda yadda. Good stuff.
I was so impressed by Mafia II I immediately leapt into Mafia III. And, uh, this was a mistake because Mafia III is bad. Or rather, I’m sure it’s super interesting. It has a non-white protagonist and it’s supposed to be—among other things—about racial tensions in 1960s … well it’s made up city but it’s blatantly New Orleans. Like Mafia II, the characters and the dialogue and the plot itself (though it’s a fairly standard ‘this guy killed family, now I’ll fuck his shit up’ type affair) are really interesting and engaging and, as we’ve seen, I’m appreciative of games with some kind of vision that they want to communicate to the player.
Problem is, Mafia III is really, really boring. Which is to say, the gameplay is not only repetitive, which I could live with as long as it was fun, but it’s laboriously repetitive. Mafia II was about the mundanity of crime, but the game itself was never mundane. I mean, even driving from one end of the city to the other, listening to the radio, and obeying the traffic laws so you didn’t get into trouble, was sufficiently reflective of the experience of being Vito Scarletta that served a purpose. And while Vito might have taken on a range of incredibly dull jobs—including selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck—those jobs were themselves varied. So while what you were doing in-game was boring, you yourself were not bored as player.
In Mafia III, you have to slowly take over the city, district by district, and you do that by repeating the same actions, over and over and over again. The actions being, go somewhere, shoot some people, get in your car, do it again. And there’s no way to streamline it or automate it or shortcut it. I did two districts, took one look at the size of the map, realised I was going to have to spend the next 30 hours doing the same shit, and thought … fuck this.
Life is too short to be this bored by a thing I am doing for fun.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
I’m honesty pretty bored of the Assassin’s Creed games by now. And I have lost all track of the metaplot, although I have a vague memory of Q shooting someone or maybe being shot in another game. And there’s an English guy? I think I like the English guy. But I played this one because it was set in London – or rather, a kind of mad, steampunk London. And so I had a lot of fun with it because the Assassin’s Creed series has stagnated to the point that the only thing that really matters any more is the environment. You’ll be doing the same sort of things regardless, but it just about manages to be entertaining, despite the tired formula, if you’re running-jumping-crouching-stabbing your way round somewhere that has some kind of resonance for you.
This probably isn’t a great game, and the flaws of the Assassin’s Creed series are well-documented, but it’s super Londony, and the voice actors are eating the scenery with extreme gusto, and I got my character to pose next to Charles Dickens, so, y’know. What more could you want from an Assassin’s Creed set in London? The one minor innovation of this addition to the franchise is being able to swap between two protagonists pretty much at will. And since this appears to be a running theme, I am happy to report that Evie Frye is extremely sensibly attired. Finally, the Ripper (as in Jack The not Kris) expansion (if it’s set in Victorian London you have to have a Ripper thing) is really atmospheric , and lets you play as the Ripper a bit, with like scrawly voices in your head, so I enjoyed that too.
I suppose it’s kind of telling, though, that high point of my game experience was actually just a profound moment of absurdity that occurred in the final mission. In said mission, your arch nemesis, the brilliantly named Crawford Starrick, is attempting to assassinate or blow up or something Queen Victoria at a party she’s holding at Buck Palace. So you sneak in to save the day which, in Evie’s case, involves casing the joint in a fabulous frock, while trying not to draw too much attention to herself. Obviously I was very here for this, though mainly what I was here for was the frock. At one point, I went a little bit too close to a restricted area: a staircase with two guards at the bottom. Now instead of warning me or anything, the guards just took one look at me walking nearby, magically intuited I was dodgy and attacked me. Since Evie was wearing a dress, her move-set was restricted to party-appropriate activities, and she had no weapons. So these two fine gentlemen beat her to death in the middle of the party.
And it was just one of those moments that remind you you’re playing a game governed by mechanics rather than inhabiting a world governed by … y’know … common sense. I mean, I know Queen Vic was a bit of a hard arse but, to my knowledge, she never had someone murdered in front of her at a ball for standing too close to a staircase.
I picked this up because it’s from the people who brought us the Dishonored series, which has some of the best environmental storytelling I’ve experienced in recent years. Prey does a similar thing, except the environment is a space station over-run by aliens. And, like most survival games, the best bit is the beginning when you have no idea what you’re doing, where anything is, and the all that’s standing between you and a swift messy death is a wrench and walking very slowly.
By far Prey’s most interesting mechanic is that one particular type of alien—little black squoogly things—have the power to mimic anything around them. And while you’re weak, scared and confused this creates pretty much insta-terror. My first act in entering any room, or rather sidling into any room, while trying to look in all directions simultaneously, would be to scan the area frantically for suspicious looking furniture: that fallen-over chair, is that a natural position for a fallen-over chair? Why are there two coffee cups? Should there be two coffee cups? And then leap across the room, screaming IT’S THE CUP IT’S THE CUP, while whacking my wrench hysterically against a perfectly innocent piece of crockery. Only to then get attacked by the second waste paper basket I hadn’t noticed. But once you get a gun and have boosted your health a bit, the mimics become little more than the occasional jump-scare which is kind of sad really. And, unfortunately, the rest of the aliens are, well, a bit dull. There’s the big scary ones. And the bigger scarier ones.
Which kind of brings me to the crux of what went wrong for me with Prey. I attempted one run through, favouring stealth and caution as is my wont, only to reach a point whereby it was impossible for me to progress. The station does not stay static. You can set up handy safe zones with turrets, or mark out the movements of aliens, but as you pass from area to area the aliens will come back, will get stronger, and will usually fuck your shit up. Which is cool in theory, except I pretty soon ran out of resources and was basically stuck unable to do anything except cower under an office desk, hugging my wrench.
So I started a second run and used all the knowledge I’d gained from my abortive first run to pimp myself up like crazy. I snuck into places I shouldn’t have been able to get, prioritised equipment I knew I would need and basically became godlike in my ability to muller aliens. Thus I got bored and stopped playing.
And this, of course, is my fault not Prey’s. I may go back to it at some point, but it’ll have to be when I’ve forgotten enough to come at it afresh. So I’m ticking it off my to-play list for now.
One thing I did really like about the game’s design, though, was the station itself. You could genuinely figure out how things were connected – even to the extent of being able to pop out of an airlock and slowly space-wade your way to another airlock on the other side of the station. The cohesive geographical freedom of that was kind of awesome.
Baldur’s Gate II
This is another thing I’ve had on the go for ages. I played the Baldur’s Gate games as a nipper, long before I really knew what Advanced Dungeons & Dungeons was, so when I say I played them, what I think I mean is, I interacted with them with equal parts fascination and confusion. As other people on the internet who are not me have said, Baldur’s Gate, and its sequel, are pretty much unique in that what they are attempting to do is replicate in a computer game an experience similar to tabletop D&D. So, essentially, my first encounter with the Baldur’s Gate games was a thing I’d never experienced before based on a thing I’d never experienced before. Fun all round.
These days, the games have a reputation for being deeply obtuse in their adherence to a gaming system that has long since been surpassed. But they are also beloved. So much so, that in 2014, a company called Beamdog released a modernised, enhanced edition of the first game, and a little later, the second. It’s been so long since I’ve played the first, that I can’t really articulate the differences except that the enhanced edition has support for modern gaming graphics, and lots of minor quality of life upgrades, like being able to see how many hitpoints each member your party has, and what statuses are affecting them, and so on.
Anyway, I started a playthrough of Baldurs Gate I: Enhanced Edition forever ago. And completed it, along with the expansion, and exported my character into Baldur’s Gate II, played about two thirds of it, and then … I don’t know? Saw a shiny thing and wandered off somewhere? Under the aegis of the “my old shit” project, I came back to my unfinished playthrough of Baldur’s Gate II and finished it off, plus the Throne of Bhaal expansion.
And, wow, it’s been one hell of a journey. Like The Witcher games, playing Baldur’s Gate kind of makes you feel like you lived through something. You go from being a level 1 nobody who can legit get killed by rats to, well, I personally took up the portfolio of my dad – which was to say, I became the God of Murder. Except, y’know, in a good way because I’m good person. And, I should add, at great personal sacrifice because there was an annoying cleric dude who wanted to marry me. But I felt I had a responsibility not leave the portfolio of murderin’ open to any psycho who fancied their chances. Regardless, it felt like the culmination of a journey at once epic and deeply personal.
The other thing I found super interesting about playing Baldur’s Gate as a grown up is that I came to it with actual knowledge of D&D. Which meant, forgive me for blowing my own Balagarn’s Iron Horn here, I didn’t suck. I did the difficult stuff, you know. Meaning the two expansion-content fights, Durlag’s Tower and Watcher’s Keep, including Demogorgon himself, which I found literally impossible when I first played these games.
I think what’s interesting about this—apart from how tragic it is that I’m bragging about my leet skills in playing Baldur’s Gate—is the way fights are managed in these games, which is completely unlike the way computer game fights are usually managed. Because normally, well, fights are fun. In Baldur’s Gate, you have a party of six, you can pause whenever, so it’s pretty much as turn-based as you want to make it, but while there’s some in-the-field manoeuvring, ultimately it’s all about preparation. You find out what’s ahead of you, you either discover through trial and error what its strengths and weaknesses are, or you look them up in the massive manual that came with the game or the actual D&D rulebook, you prepare against the strengths and prepare to exploit the weaknesses. And then you, err, win. Which means all fights are either insanely difficult or insanely easy. And are largely conducted in a shop half a world away, as you stock up on scrolls and potions against the most likely eventualities, like you’re your own mum, sending you off on a school trip. As experiences go, it’s simultaneously satisfying and … really boring. By the end of the game, when we were going up almost exclusively against epic level enemies, each fight would take me about 10 minutes: 9 minutes of thinking, casting spells and drinking potions, then 1 minute of actual combat.
You can kind of see why they don’t make them like that anymore.
Though at the same time, it’s a teeny tiny bit sad they don’t.
Oh, I should, the other thing I really enjoyed about my Baldur’s Gate play through was the romance. Which was to say, no, I did not enjoy the romance. The romance was stupid. And, to add insult to injury, the only person available for a female character to romance is the annoying cleric I mentioned earlier. But, I guess, any annoying cleric in a storm. I mean, okay, points for the attempt at character development and character interaction at a time when there wasn’t much of either around. But what consistently entertained me about my love affair with the annoying cleric was that it appeared to be triggered based on the passage of real time. Which meant, in practice, that he always wanted to whisper sweet nothings to me in the most ludicrous imaginable situations.
You might need to click these to images to appreciate the full scope of my Annoying Cleric’s sense of romance.