Monday, 30 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #9: The Walking Dead: Season One

The Walking Dead: Season One Telltale Games/Telltale Games (2012)

The zombie apocalypse is probably the most over-used of video game settings because it provides an excuse for players to gun down thousands of enemies in morally unambiguous abandon. They're zombies! They don't even feel pain. The mechanics of ripping thorugh mindless bodies are so seductive that the devastation such an infection might cause to individuals and society as a whole has been left largely unexplored.

Thank goodness then, for The Walking Dead, which uses player choice to bring Robert Kirkman's comic book series to life and throw the player into the midst of the emotional fallout from the apocalypse. By limiting gameplay to pointing and clicking, The Walking Dead renders the player (as escaped convict Lee) relatively helpless, or at least as helpless as any normal person would be in the face of such horror.

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #10: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Square Enix/Eidos Montreal (2011)

In most media, science fiction stories often suffer from placing concept ahead of character. Because the genre - which also goes by the name of speculative fiction - is devoted to the exploration of ideas through alternative and future universes, this is not surprising. It is difficult to deliver compelling character-driven narratives when characters must necessarily exist as representatives of certain demographics or viewpoints.

This is a problem because in most narrative media, empathy is required for a story to have any impact because the reader/viewer/listener is a passive participant whose only way in is through the characters. 

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #11: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks (2011)

I reviewed Skyrim for GodisaGeek back in 2011. Here's what I had to say:

Fans of fantasy often cite mythology, symbology or history as reasons why they spend their free time immersed in fictional worlds instead of, you know, going outside. I know I do. But although there’s truth in that, at the heart of the matter is the desire to remove yourself entirely from the real world, and get lost somewhere altogether more lonely and dramatic. It’s hard to think of a game that makes it as easy to do that as Skyrim. [...] It isn’t quite perfect, but if you want to play it, you’ll want to turn a blind eye to its eccentricities for the sake of staying immersed in its enormous, snowy world.

I could explain what gives the game this power, but I'd be repeating myself. Instead, I refer you to the full review and Andy Kelly's Other Places video of the gameworld, below.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #12: Gears of War

Gears of War, Microsoft Studios/Epic Games (2006)

The first I, like most people, heard about the Xbox 360's first big shooter, it was in a cinema as a preposterously burly man ran through a darkened cave to the melodramatic tones of Gary Jules' Mad World, the emo cover of the Tears for Fears song that had made Christmas #1 in the UK three years earlier.

The juxtaposition of post-Schwarzenegger brawn with an angst-ridden song about social alienation and psychological breakdown was irresistible. Though it looks like a blunt instrument, Gears of War actually maintains a deft balance between strong art direction, a sharp, character-driven script and extreme violence.

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #13: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, 2K Games/Firaxis Games (2012)

Here's why I don't like strategy games:

  • They don't end.
  • They don't have stories.
  • They make me feel stupid.
  • I find their reward loops too compelling.

In other words, I lack the patience and willpower to enjoy them, and prefer to stick to games where I can pretend to be a wizard/explorer/starship commander, wandering freely around a fantasy world not worrying about the long-term consequences of my actions.

And yet XCOM: Enemy Unknown drew me in. This was partly due to the near-future alien invasion aesthetic and the way I could customise each member of my squad and give them names like "Karl Bloodfountain" (Assault) and "Caesar Sparklefart" (Medic), but mostly it was because the game was simply so good that even someone as unenamoured with the genre as myself could enjoy it.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #14: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider, Square Enix/Crystal Dynamics (2013)

Although I am enormous fan of the Tomb Raider series, I enjoyed this year's reboot for reasons that have nothing to do with Tomb Raider.

For a start, the motion-captured protagonist was immensely fun to control. She felt satisfyingly heavy and interacted believably with her environment. The action was tactile and fun, making the exploration hugely enjoyable rather than a chore. I liked the fact that she was a woman, and looked like one. Never have I felt more like I was controlling a person, rather than a video game character.

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #15: BioShock

BioShock, 2K Games/Irrational Games (2007)

Despite its RPG-lite elements and the supernatural plasmids that fly from the player's fingertips, BioShock is a plain old shooter, and a pretty pedestrian one at that.

This goes to show that a great environment can make the difference between a disposable experience and an unforgettable one. Rapture, an art deco underwater city envisioned by objectivist madman Andrew Ryan, is a visually arresting combination of 1920s architecture, marine imagery and menacing decay.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #16: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Sony Computer Entertainment/Naughty Dog (2009)

Spoiler alert

There are two things I really love about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The first is its spectacular rendering of an ersatz Kathmandu, which brings back a lot of memories of the time I visited the (real, not war-torn) city back in 2007.

The second is its treatment of Chloe Frazer, who has the distinction of being one of the few women in a video game who is allowed to show sexual interest in a man without being either fetishised or punished as a result.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #17: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Square Enix/Eidos Interactive/Crystal Dynamics (2010)

This game's clever co-operative puzzle-platforming is unmatched by anything else this generation.

The plot, in which Lara and Totec, the titular Guardian of Light, make their way through a booby-trapped temple to bring down a vengeful Aztec god, is unimportant. What matters to me is the way in which the players need to interact with each other in order to complete the quest.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #18: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, 2K Games/Bethesda Game Studios (2006)

For me, the last console generation began in a dank prison cell not far outside the walls of Cyrodiil's Imperial City.

Never having been a PC gamer, the sheer size and depth of Oblivion's world astounded me. Never before had I been able to run freely around such a vast map, going where I pleased, talking to any character that interested me and becoming the hero I wanted to be.

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #19: Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix/Square Enix (2010)

For a blog dedicated to narrative through gameplay, it seems contrary to place a game almost universally condemned for a lack of interactivity on a list of games of the generation.

But what I did not convey in the last entry is something that I hope will become clear as the rest of the instalments emerge: that these are my twenty favourite games, not the ones I consider either the most influential or the best. And by that entirely subjective metric, this strange tale of branded fugitives makes the list.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #20: Catherine

Catherine, Atlus/Atlus Persona Team (2012)

Spoiler alert

The story of a weak-willed man-child who can't be bothered to make decisions and would rather go to the pub, Catherine has an unusual premise for a video game. Its protagonist is Vincent, a software engineer in his early thirties with an over-achieving girlfriend, Katherine.

Katherine won't stop talking about marriage and babies, and as a result he starts spending more and more time in The Stray Sheep, his local bar. There, he meets the outrageously sexy Catherine whom he proceeds to take home for a night of unbridled passion.

That's when the dreams start.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Can't you just let a story be a story?

"I don't understand this at all. I don't understand any of this. Why does a story have to be a socio-anything? Politics... culture... history... aren't those natural ingredients in any story, if it's told well? I mean... can't you you guys just let a story be a story?"

Stephen King, from "Bill Denbrough Takes Time Out" - It (1988) 

This quote is taken from a flashback scene in It where horror writer Bill Denbrough takes a creative writing course and becomes frustrated by the dismissal of his thrilling work by his classmates and the teacher.

Bear that in mind while you read this description of the Centre for Creative Writing at the University of Kent:

It is extremely disappointing to see Kent dismiss "children's fiction" as not worthy of a course that purports to teach its students "high quality literary fiction" that is "full of ideas". I would also like to know what is wrong with "mass-market thrillers", or "old fashioned ballads" in a literary context.

I understand the drive to want to write fiction that isn't disposable, but to dismiss more accessible forms is pure snobbery. As Bill Denbrough points out, a story that's "told well" contains truth, and the best literature should always be more than just a vessel for delivering ideas.

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 13 - Mount Corel, Gold Saucer, and the Prison

It seems everywhere we go people are talking about a "man in a black cape" who was there right before us.

Why is that? Is there only one black cape on this entire planet?

We can only hope that's the case because following reports of a black cape has led us into some pretty hairy situations, and if the cape doesn't contain Sephiroth, it's going to be really annoying when we finally catch up with it.

It's not just Mount Corel's terrain that is hostile. The entire area is infested with evil eggs.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 12 - Marching Towards the Costa Del Sol

We've traced Sephiroth all the way to Junon Harbour, where I've climbed to the top of the rusty Shinra monolith overlooking the waterfront. Not being the stealthy type, I just walk in through the front door, whereupon the on-duty guard mistakes me for a soldier out of uniform.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 11 - The Search for Sephiroth

We don't believe official reports that Sephiroth is dead for a number of reasons.
  1. Shinra own the press.
  2. Sephiroth disappeared after torching a large amount of incriminating evidence that Shinra don't really want coming to light. 
  3. Shinra are all bastards.
Consequently, we decide to search for him in order to find out what's really behind Shinra's recent activities and the bloody trail that's recently been left in the corridors of their HQ.

Recent disturbances are said to have created increased monster activity around "Mythril Mine", so that's where we head first. Unfortunately we need to cross a marsh to get there, a marsh inhabited by the deadly "Midgar Zolom".

The only thing we have access to that can move faster than the Zolom is of course, a Chocobo. All Final Fantasy games have Chocobos in them, and they're always accompanied by weird bouncy farmyard music.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Final Fantasy Playthrough: Part 10 - What Happens in Nibelheim Stays in Nibelheim

After leaving Midgar, we decide to head for the town of Kalm. On the way, Red XIII, Tifa and myself are accosted by a bike gang. These guys are on choppers, so we can assume that in pop-cultural terms they're Butch to Cloud's earlier Kaneda.

Speaking of Akira references, I watched the film again this week and spotted another potential reference: this slide that Cloud and Aeris sit on to discuss his past closely resembles the one in [SPOILERS] Tetsuo's flashback to his childhood at the orphanage with Kaneda.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

I went on a whistle-stop tour of South East Asia in May of this year. Because it was such a quick trip, I didn't really do anything that wasn't in the Lonely Planet, and I don't have any stories that you won't have heard before.

I could write something educational about Tomb Raider, of course, but that's already been covered by other sources, notably The Archaeology of Tomb Raider, whose article on Angkor Wat I recommend if you are so inclined.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Violence and Tears: The Troubled Road to Progress

This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and to a lesser extent, Tomb Raider.

Last month, NewStatesman published an excellent article by Sophia McDougall about the inadequacy of the ubiquitous "Strong Female Character", whose sole trait is invulnerability. Central to its argument is the fact that while pop culture’s favourite male heroes are deeply flawed (Sherlock Holmes is an addict, Batman a lunatic and James Bond a psychopath, to name a few) their female counterparts are rarely allowed to be anything other than “strong” lest they are automatically rendered unheroic. This is not only boring but insulting, since it implies that while men are innately heroic enough to remain so despite having serious character flaws, women have to be bulletproof, otherwise they’re pathetic.

The Last of Us' Ellie does what needs to be done.

As if to prove McDougall’s point, published a half-baked piece of clickbait last week which contained a troubling analysis of a pivotal scene in Naughty Dog’s zombie road trip epic The Last of Us. In the scene, 14-year old Ellie, cornered by a cannibalistic hebephile, violently stabs him to death with a machete before being pulled away by ageing smuggler Joel, whom she’s spent the last three months trying to save from starvation, infection and worse. Reunited with the man she thought she’d never see again as her attacker's mutilated corpse lies bleeding beside her, Ellie bursts into tears.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Final Fantasy Playthrough Playthrough: Part 9 - Escaping Shinra

In what I hope doesn't turn out to be a Deus Ex Machina, the pickle in which Tifa, Barret, Aeris and Red XIII and I briefly found ourselves in was resolved when a mysterious assailant slaughtered all the Shinra guards on our floor and unlocked our cell doors in the process.

Tracking said assailant is not difficult as he or she has left a trail of blood in their wake. Red XIII suggests we follow it to the upper floor.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Getting past the next (A) level.

Thursday was A-level results day in the UK, which means that 18-year olds across the land will know by now whether or not they've got into their chosen university.

It's a good day for some students and a bad day for others, but it's always a great day for newspapers, who not only have an excuse to plaster their front pages with photos of comely young maidens, but also to fill their websites with countless click-bait articles about how A-levels are either too easy, horribly unfair, or just completely irrelevant.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 8 - Shinra HQ

We've learned from Elmyra that Aeris has been captured by Shinra, who have been after the girl for years on account of her being an "Ancient". We decide to rescue her for reasons of loyalty and plot development.

Shinra's HQ is built in the middle of the wheel-shaped city of Midgar and stands far above the desolate slums where we've spent all our time thus far. Luckily, Shinra's villainous decision to drop the "plate" (the giant platform on which Sector 7's middle-class live) on to the slums, thus destroying them and all their inhabitants, has left a rickety pathway of architectural detritus leading directly to their corporate fortress.

But first, some backtracking, for local colour as much as anything else. We return to the Don's mansion, from which Aeris and I rescued Tifa only a few hours ago. There's a guy with a mohawk in the S&M dungeon. We set him free, without even knowing if we'll unlock some kind of minigame as a reward.

We don't.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 7 - Dropping the Plate

After last week's picaresque jaunt through Wall Market looking for ways to trick an old mobster into bed, Tifa, Aeris and myself have come back down to earth with a bump. Well, actually more like a splash, because the Don threw us into the sewers below his mansion.

This week's episode takes an altogether more serious tone, because after interrogating Don Corneo, we discovered that Shinra are planning to eliminate AVALANCHE by dropping the upper plate of Sector 7 onto the slums below. The three of us need to make our way through this creepy train yard to save the people of the slums before it's too late.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Real Life: The Video Game

I try and keep real life out of this video game blog as much as possible because if real life was so great, I wouldn't spend so much time playing video games.

But sometimes real life is great. Even better than video games.

Jade is all like "WTF?"

I know. Stick with me on this!

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 6 - The Don's Mansion

Last time, Aeris and I (well, Cloud. I'm getting into the role-playing aspect of this role-playing game) were on our way to Sector 7 when we were waylaid by a womancatcher wagon all decked out with things women like, such as plant pots and giant chickens.

Despite the plant pots, we would have walked on by were it not for the fact that it was carrying my childhood friend, Tifa.

Thus, we postponed our plans and decided to follow the womancatcher wagon in order to get Tifa back.

We found our way into Wall Market, which turns out to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy. I'm quite happy about this because I was growing weary of all the relentless salt-of-the-earthness and total lack of moral ambiguity that we found elsewhere in the Midgar slums.

Now that we're here, I decide the best thing to do is start talking to people to see if they've seen Tifa. The first person we meet pays Aeris a complement.

Interesting. Is there a place around here for connoisseurs of good-looking heifers?

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Nintendo Hyper 8-bit... Tori Amos?

When you have diverse tastes, it not often that someone puts your favourite things together. Not even on the internet, where entire blogs are dedicated to chronicling video game toilets.

So you can understand why I had to have a little alone time when I discovered this incredible chiptune cover of the whole of Tori Amos' apocalyptic baroque dance* album From The Choirgirl Hotel by Daryl Banner.

I've said before that the Donkey Kong Land games have some of my favourite soundtracks because the brilliance of the compositions means they're not only listenable in 8-bit but also listenable the 10,000th time you hear them, which all people who have played Donkey Kong will know because those games were so hard.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Goodbye Roger Ebert.

Here is my review of Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory. Like its name, the game is is rambling and incoherent, if colourful.

Is that smutty or just incoherent?

It also reinforced my dislike of having to summarise a 2,000 review with a mark out of ten. I gave it a six which, due to video game review score inflation, is effectively total damnation, but I would actually recommend it to "people who like that sort of thing".

Friday, 5 April 2013

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 5 - Exploring the Slums

Hello, and welcome back to the Final Fantasy VII playthrough. Just so you have a sense of scale, I'm now two hours into the game after playing it for five months. This is a 100-hour game, which means that at this pace, I won't be finished for another twenty years.

Because there's nothing I'd rather do with the next two decades than wander around a pretend slum, let's get down to it.

Cloud talks to some locals.


Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Clementine and existential angst.

The Tomb Raider article wasn't the only thing I've written for GodisaGeek recently. Back in February (gosh, February) I wrote another Character Select piece, this one on little Clementine from The Walking Dead.

Clementine. Devastating.

The Walking Dead is probably the most upsetting game I have ever played, which you can probably tell by reading that piece. I'm pretty sure I didn't update Well-Rendered with it earlier because I found it so unpleasant to write. Honestly, I haven't even re-read it since I submitted it to the GodisaGeek editors, I can't even remember if it's any good.

Fun times.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Tomb Raider: The Verdict

Tomb Raider is out! Before I launch into what I thought of it, I suggest you read my latest Character Select, which is about the new Lara Croft. I have now written nine Character Select articles, two of which have been about Lara Croft. Make of that what you will. That article represents a fairly detached view of the new game, in which I look at the cultural and commercial reasons why Lara Croft was transformed from this:

 ...into this...

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Best. Comeback. Ever.

Now, I dislike the music of James Blunt as much as the next person with ears, but his reply to a Tweet yesterday was so brilliant that I feel the need to share it with you.

Touché. Sort of.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Final Fantasy VII Playthrough: Part 4 - Flight from the Church

It's been several weeks, a failed power supply, many pints of brandy and all the Bond films since we last saw Cloud and Aeris.

If you've only just tuned into Well-Rendered, welcome! This is how we do things here. You run a Google images search for "final fantasy aeris church screenshot" and end up here, I write reams of metafictional prose, you stick around because you're an incorrigible voyeur on a lunch break. So long as we pretend we don't know each other when we meet on the Soho streets at 3am (seriously Mum, it's like the last days of Rome out there), it's all good.

Anyway. To recap, Cloud had fallen through the roof of Aeris' church and crushed her flowers. I like how Aeris is neither too afraid of Cloud to demand he pay her for the flowers he crushed nor so overwhelmed by his good looks (I'm just assuming he's good-looking, it's hard to tell with so few pixels at play) that she just lets him off.

Before the flower scenario can get too political, some pony tailed dudes arrive and start chasing our heroes up the stairs.

Cloud and Aeris eye up a handy barrel.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Character Select: Wakka

My power supply arrived, my computer is working! Hurrah!

I'm not going to go through the backlog of Final Fantasy VII screenshots tonight, so to tide you over, here's my latest "Character Select" article from GodisaGeek.

Wakka and his Blitzball team, the Besaid Aurochs.

It's about Final Fantasy X's Wakka, who is a long, long term favourite of Well-Rendered. The article is about the abuse of power, which should make for cheerful Monday night reading for you all.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A year in games, books, gigs and other things: 2012

All around the internet, proper gaming sites are compiling their "Game of the Year" lists, thoughtful and informative summaries of the technological and artistic achievements that took place within the industry in 2012. You won't find any of that here because besides the games I reviewed for GodisaGeek (a handful of slightly underwhelming JRPGs and Dear Esther, which is barely even a game), I haven't actually played any games released this year.

Dear Esther. A game. Kind of.

This is partly for economic reasons: game commentary tends to level out after about a year, so it becomes easier to separate hype from considered analysis. It's also easier to determine whether the criticism a game receives is of an aspect that you personally are able to forgive, and thus whether it is worth your time and money. Many people do this, which is why two games that slipped under the radar when they were released in 2010 (Vanquish and my beloved Deadly Premonition) emerged as sleeper hits towards the end of this year.