Firewatch – Days 1 and 2

Firewatch Lookout Tower

I’m 2/5 of the way into Firewatch, and so far I have three thoughts.

First, I’m not sure I’ve figured out what my main objective is. Based on what I can tell, the story is a “cabin in the woods” style mystery in which there is a creepy person in the wilderness threatening the protagonist, who is more or less cut off from civilization. On top of that, there seems to be some sort of relationship developing between Henry, the player character, and Delilah, his supervisor who communicates with him via a walkie-talkie radio. I’m not sure if romancing Delilah is supposed to be a goal, but I get the feeling she’s just being friendly. I like her a lot, but I don’t want to sleep with her; I’d rather figure out who’s stalking around the national park and ransacking people’s stuff.

Second, this game is overly obsessed with light effects. For some reason, it can’t just be broad daylight when Henry is out and about. I spent what felt like most of the second day walking around at sunset, so everything was orange: the dirt was orange, the grass was orange, the underbrush was orange, and the path was orange too, meaning that I couldn’t see where I was supposed to go and had to consult the map every twenty paces or so. I get that light effects are cool, but I think it might have been better if the more intense variations were saved for later in the story, after the player has a better sense of the visually based functionality of the world of the game.

Third, people have been saying they finished this game in two hours, which I don’t understand. I haven’t been taking that much time to explore, and I’ve already put in a bit more than two hours. Based on my rate of progress, I’m estimating that it’s going to take me around five hours to make it all the way through. Granted, I’m not a skilled gamer, but I still don’t get how Firewatch could be finished in two hours, even if the player never leaves the beaten path and skips all the conversations with Delilah. I suppose you could do a speedrun on your first playthrough, but what would be the point? And why would you brag about the amount of time it takes to finish a game like this?

All that aside, I really dig the writing. Henry is a bit too Paul Giamatti for my taste, but it pleases me to no end that the game has a healthy sense of humor, especially given the nature of Henry’s backstory. My favorite part of the game so far are the two skinnydipping teenage girls, who are women after my own heart. The way that Delilah in particular reacts to their shenanigans suggests so much about her character, as if perhaps she was that sort of person herself not too long ago, and so she’s suffering from secondhand embarrassment. Far from coming off as misogynistic, that particular element of these first two chapters – Delilah’s cynicism – felt so real to me. Also, when Henry picks up one of the magazines at the girls’ ruined camp site on the evening of the second day, and the voice actor (Rich Sommer) says “I have entered the Teen Zone,” all the stars aligned and for that tiny shining moment the universe was perfect.

( Header image from Kotaku )

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture dumps the player on a hill overlooking a fictional village called Yaughton in the west of England. The game is entirely first-person, and the player can only do two things: walk and look around. There’s also an action button that can be used to turn on radios, pick up ringing phones, and enter open doors and gates, but we never see the player character’s hands. The player is thus little more than a moving point of view. This is just fine, because Yaughton is gorgeous, but it took me awhile to figure out what I needed to do to progress the story.

What I eventually learned was this:

* If a door is closed, you can’t open it.
* The purpose of the glowing comet is to lead you through the game.
* You have to use the controller’s tilt function to get the pinpoints of light to talk (which makes sense in the context of the story, although as a gimmick it’s probably not worth the PS4 console exclusivity).

After climbing down from the hill, the player is confronted with a jumble of buildings and several intersections. Since you can go in almost every house, not to mention every house’s backyard and garage and garden shed, it was difficult for me to resist the temptation not to do so. I kept encountering radios that can be turned on to get a bit of story, as well as shimmers of light that resolved into stylized representations of people sharing brief conversations.

Aside from these radios and glowing afterimages, Yaughton is completely deserted, and your job is to figure out what happened. “What happened” turns out to be a combination of things, none of which is ever properly explained, but it the heart of the mystery doesn’t really matter. What matters is the human drama that explodes out of the core of the crisis.

Still, the front end of the game is loaded with tons of disconnected narratives and characters whose relationship to each other isn’t immediately apparent. After almost two hours of wandering around and trying to figure things out, I finally realized that the tourist maps posted around the town function as maps of the game, and that I was only at the beginning.

Despite the lovely scenery, the first bit of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is fairly stagnant. The light is totally flat, and there is no wind moving the leaves in the trees or garbage across the streets. More than anything else, my first impression of Yaughton was that it was a stage setting that the game developers were too lazy or too rushed to animate. I stopped caring about seeing and finding everything and decided to follow the glowing comet to progress the story.

What the comet showed me was a series of conversations centered around a priest, Father Jeremy Wheeler, who was trying to come to terms with his faith in relation to what was happening to the town. After a climactic scene, the game changes, and something amazing happens. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but OH MY GOD. It was so beautiful that I may have cried a little.

After that, the game becomes both more structured and more visually dynamic. The player now understands that each area of the game is the stage for a narrative surrounding one character, an understanding the game encourages by having the name of that character appear on the screen as one of the choral pieces of its soundtrack plays during the transition from area to area. After the first transition, the world of the game also becomes more active, with floating pollen, falling leaves, swaying flowers, billowing air-dried laundry, and moving shadows suggesting wind moving through the trees. As the natural world becomes more alive, so too do the characters as the pieces of the story gradually start coming together.

I should say, however, that the comet that guides the player through the story is kind of a dick sometimes. It will lead you to some things, but not to everything, and if you decide you’re going to ignore it and go off the path it’s trying to lead you along it will disappear and go somewhere where you can’t find it. In the Appleton’s Farm area in particular, I got lost and had to reset the game twice just to bring the comet back to me.

All of my complaints are my own damn fault, though. I understand the artistic decision to make the initial section of Yaughton disorienting and motionless, and it would make sense to have the comet not bother a player who seems to want to go off on her own. If I were better at knowing how to act with 3D environments, I wouldn’t have had so much trouble.

I’m worried that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has elevated my tolerance for beauty. In the future, a video game is going to need to be at least as graphically, aurally, and narratively beautiful as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture to provoke the same sort of overwhelming joy I experienced while playing.

In any case, I enjoyed Kirk Hamilton’s full write-up of the plot, which is a good read and contains a number of high-quality screenshots. It also poses many interesting questions and offers some excellent answers.

( Header image taken from the Gamespot review of the game )

Transistor – Story

Transistor Concept Art Red and Sword Boyfriend

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

In my earlier post on Transistor I discussed the Camerata, the four people who act as the game’s antagonists. It seems that Transistor is yet another game in which I side with the villains because I don’t understand the protagonists.

Transistor’s two protagonists are a 27-year-old female superstar singer named Red and her male love interest, whose consciousness became trapped inside the Transistor after the device was forcibly impaled through his physical body. This man doesn’t have a name, so I am going to call him “Sword Boyfriend.”

It’s not clear what exactly happened to Sword Boyfriend. The player learns that the “trace data” of a human being can be uploaded into the Transistor if that person is physically stabbed with the blade. However, since there seems to be trace data of people who haven’t been penetrated by the Transistor stored in the sword, I don’t understand why anyone has to be killed at all.

For example, even though Sword Boyfriend sacrificed himself to save Red from an attack by the Camerata, the Transistor contains Red’s trace data. Red has lost her voice for some reason that’s never explained, although Sword Boyfriend says that it was taken from her by the Camerata. Since Red doesn’t speak and only communicates by typing, I’m assuming this is literal. Perhaps her voice serves as her trace data; but, because she’s attacked on her way out of a concert at which she had just performed, and because she was physically shielded from the attack by Sword Boyfriend, I don’t understand when or how her voice could have been taken from her.

What this means is that we have is an impossibly skinny woman running around in a yellow minidress and heels who can’t speak for no discernable reason. Within the first hour and a half of the game she actually goes to her apartment to eat a flatbread and chill out for a bit, but she still doesn’t change into an outfit more suitable for violent combat in the disintegrating remains of her cybercity. So let’s call her Manic Pixie Murder Girl.

Why has Manic Pixie Murder Girl lost her voice?

Since she can type, she’s not a silent protagonist, thus eliminating her silence as a reference to that trope. If she could communicate on a more consistent basis and better interact with the world around her, she’d come off as less of a victim and more in control of her situation… and I guess we can’t have that? So she hums (holding the L1 button will quiet the background music so the player can hear her hum), because her singing makes her seem more tragic and fragile and beautiful and… I just can’t, sorry.

What I’m trying to say is that, in a cultural climate in which there are very few female player characters, rendering a female protagonist as delicate and voiceless is somewhat… offensive problematic.

Sword Boyfriend isn’t much better.

At the end of the game, Red stabs herself with the Transistor so that her consciousness can live in its virtual world together with Sword Boyfriend. Several images of Red and Sword Boyfriend hanging out together are shown as the end credits roll, but the player is never able to see Sword Boyfriend’s face. We don’t know the shape of his eyes or the curve of his nose, and we’re never told his name. We also don’t find out how he knew Red or why (or whether) he seemingly refused to register his data with the Cloudbank network. The important things that the player wants to know about him (especially a player attracted to men) remain a mystery.

In other words, whereas the female protagonist is completely open to the gaze of the player while not being able to speak, the male protagonist is able to create and manage his identity with his own words.

I’m just going to say it – this is sexist.

Sexism aside, it’s also boring. There were so many plot holes and gaps in characterization regarding Red and Sword Boyfriend that it was difficult to care about them as much as I cared about the Camerata, who were fascinating to me.

Who the Camerata were, and what their relationship to each other was, and what they were trying to do – all of these things become increasingly clear as the story unfolds. Since the player is able to uncover all manner of information about them (even as the two protagonists remain a mystery), it’s easy to form an affective attachment.

In fact, I sympathize with Royce Bracket, the game’s primary antagonist, in a way that I don’t sympathize with Red and Sword Boyfriend. Royce wanted to satisfy his personal curiosity concerning the origins and functions of Cloudbank while making the city a better and more meaningful place to live for all of its citizens. He is something of a Faust figure who is undone by his quest for knowledge; but, when compared to the solipsism of Red and Sword Boyfriend, his sins don’t seem all that dire. While Royce was actively trying to save Cloudbank from The Process, Red and Sword Boyfriend were just out for revenge. After she kills Royce, instead of sticking around to help the city and its citizens, Red decides to kill herself.

One might argue that Cloudbank was hedonistic and deserved its fate, but think about it – how would you feel if your home were being destroyed and the one person capable of helping you decided that she just didn’t care?

Transistor was a lot of fun, but it left me with so many questions.

( Header image from the Transistor Wiki )

Transistor – Setting

Transistor The Camerata

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

There’s a good four-paragraph precis of the plot on Wikipedia, but it follows the game fairly closely and doesn’t give a sense of the big picture. Before I try to analyze anything, I need to make sure I understand what’s going on.

Okay, so.

In the glorious post-post-postmodernist Art Deco future, there is a city called Cloudbank, which is next to the water and filled with huge buildings and quaint little neighborhoods. The cool thing about Cloudbank is that its citizens can vote on everything from the next large public works project to the color of the sky. The natural environment (such as the weather) and architectural landscape are thus entirely malleable.

The means by which the physical world is manipulated is called “The Process,” which takes the form of a group of entities that seem to be half software and half hardware (so they are both cybernetic and robotic). One of the city’s architects, a man by the name of Royce Bracket, used a giant flashdrive called “Transistor” to control The Process and reshape the city of Cloudbank according the wishes of the people, whose voice was represented by a civic administrator named Grant Kendrell.

This when things get a little fuzzy.

Grant Kendrall, who had been acting as an administrator for about thirty years, realized that the city would never be able to evolve naturally if everything were constantly changing. He discussed this with Royce Bracket over drinks, and the two of them decided to form a secret club called “Camerata,” whose creed is “When everything changes, nothing changes.” As the Camerata, Grant and Royce decided that they were going to remove control over the physical environment of Cloudbank from the people and create something less ephemeral and more lasting and meaningful.

The tool they would use to accomplish this goal would be the Transistor, which is able to absorb the “trace data” of human beings. It’s not entirely clear what “trace data” is. Is it a true digitized version of a person’s consciousness that allows the person to live inside the Transistor? Or is it the sum total of a person’s digital records, including the data drawn from the votes they’ve cast at the city’s many public terminals? Regardless, the Camerata, which expanded to include Grant’s husband Asher and a professional socialite and media personality named Sybil Reisz, resolved to upload the trace data of several of Cloudbank’s prominent citizens into the Transistor.

Again, it’s not certain what they hoped to achieve by collecting this trace data, but this is what I think – Royce had observed a gradual change in The Process in which certain types of robots had become more human in shape and disposition; so perhaps, by giving The Process more input through the Transistor, Royce aimed to give The Process a better sense of the character of the city and its people, which would in turn ensure that its vision would be clearer as it remade Cloudbank.

In any case, Royce removed the Transistor from its cradle and began murdering people (or perhaps Grant and/or Asher did the actual murdering), but this only resulted in the three of them losing control of The Process, which began destroying the city. Meanwhile, Sybil, who had apparently nominated people to be murdered, lost herself to The Process, either having her physical body hijacked or having her consciousness transferred into a Process humanoid.

The game begins immediately after the attempted murder of a popular singer named Red. The murder is unsuccessful, as Red is shielded by her lover, whose own trace data comes to rest within the Transistor. Red therefore sets off, Transistor in hand, to find the Camerata, stop The Process, and somehow restore her lover’s consciousness back to his body.

There are a lot of holes here, but I think that’s the gist of the game’s setting.

( Header image from Screenscapes on Tumblr )

Transistor – Introduction

Transistor Concept Art

I just started playing Transistor two nights ago.

I love this game. I LOVE THIS GAME.

I never played Bastion (Supergiant Games’s debut title) because even the word “isometric” gives me flashbacks to terrible PlayStation games like Vagrant Story and Breath of Fire 4 (don’t try to tell me that either of these games aren’t terrible, because I will cut you). Transistor has an isometric perspective as well, but I decided to give it a try for two reasons. First, the soundtrack is amazing, and I’ve been listening to it on heavy rotation for about six months now. Second, one of my friends in the Final Fantasy VI fandom recently became obsessed with it, and she has excellent taste.

Unlike my experience with Ni no Kuni, my first half hour with Transistor was amazing. The game throws you into the middle of things with no explanation of the story or the battle system, and all you can do is move forward. Since nothing is too overly complicated at first, it’s easy to learn by doing, and around the first hour things start to become much clearer.

I’m about two hours in, and I am hooked.

So far Transistor reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy VII in its presentation. The art deco cyberpunk aesthetic is definitely part of it, as are the two big boyfriend swords, but I also love the way both games allow you to jump right into the action.

People remember the intro to Final Fantasy VII as being this huge cinematic masterpiece – and it totally was! – but it was also only about 45 seconds long. After the camera zooms into the city of Midgar, a train pulls into a station, Cloud jumps off, and the player immediately starts running around, solving puzzles, and fighting SHINRA guards. Cloud’s objective isn’t entirely clear, and there are plenty of unexplained plot points, but what the player needs to do is never in doubt.

In contrast, the opening scene of Final Fantasy VIII is more than three minutes of confusing cinematic sequences followed by Squall waking up in an infirmary bed, having a weird vision, falling asleep again, waking up again, and being told to go change into his school uniform. Although this seems like a simple objective, it can only be accomplished if the player doesn’t start wandering around the Garden building, which is huge and full of useless space.

Over the weekend it was just announced that the PS4 remake of Final Fantasy VII will be released in episodes, a bit of information that made me much less excited about it.

Although I’ve been able to maintain my interest in Final Fantasy because of all the amazing fanwork people have been putting out, I sometimes wonder if I can still consider myself a fan of the franchise. I have absolutely no interest in the sequels to Final Fantasy XIII, or in Final Fantasy XIV. Now that I’ve learned Final Fantasy VII will be staged across multiple releases, I’m not sure I’m interested in it either.

I’m not necessarily opposed to the renewal of IP; there is literally no one on this planet who loves the Wind Waker HD release than I do. Still, I think what Nintendo understands that Square Enix doesn’t is that what both veteran and rookie players are looking for is a more streamlined experience. Older players want to remember what an RPG felt like when you didn’t have to manage something like Fallout 4’s complicated menu interface (when what they actually remember is being younger and having more free time). Meanwhile, new players want to understand what the game did right without struggling through all the garbage that ended up being left by the wayside as the franchise progressed.

And honestly? Why would I want to play Final Fantasy VII for the umpteenth time when I could be playing games like Transistor? Transistor’s graphics and storytelling and battle system are familiar – as I wrote earlier, there are definite parallels to FFVII – but the game also feels new and fresh and gorgeous.

Transistor is only supposed to take about six to eight hours to finish. Total gameplay time is very important to me. When I was in elementary middle school, I had a seemingly infinite amount of time to get every single character in my party all the way up to level 99 in any given game, but since then the amount of time I can afford to spend on games has been gradually declining. Yes, I suppose that makes me a shitty casual gamer, but I prefer to think of myself as someone who prefers a more carefully curated gaming experience. If I only have 45 minutes to devote to a game every day, I want at least some of those minutes to be quality gaming time and not mindless grinding or exposition.

Transistor is an RPG that flawlessly integrates exploration, exposition, battles, and leveling, and I love it. I can only hope the FFVII remake will manage to do the same.

If nothing else, I do have to admit that HD Cloud is gorgeous…

HD Cloud Strife Running

( The above animated GIF is from cloudstrifes on Tumblr )

( Header image from the Supergiant Games official website )