Chris Plays: 2020 In Review

As the grip of the global pandemic has tightened around the world, one of the very few upsides has been increased time for video games.  I managed to make it through more titles than usual this year, although a great many remain in the towering “to be played” pile.  As with previous years, today I’m taking a look back at games I played in 2020, not just titles released in the last twelve months.  As usual, I’ve omitted VR games from this list.

Good Fun

I am a big fan of titles I can consume from beginning to end in the space between my children going to sleep for the evening and my own slide into unconsciousness.  These are titles that didn’t overstay their welcome.

Blair Witch

Blair Witch – A haunted forest romp set in the Blair Witch universe that has more to offer than it initially appears.  The inclusion of a dog companion is fun and well-executed, the story is compelling, and it can be pretty creepy.  I have a fundamental problem, in terms of basic game design philosophy, with the way that it ends, but that’s probably just me.

Ring Fit – An RPG where you grind your actual stats rather than your character’s.  Gamification of fitness makes a ton of sense and this title does it with style.  Gets pretty repetitive, though.

Home Fighter – Just install everything that Hap, Inc. makes.

Super Metroid – I never played this as a kid, and going back through it now it’s clear how much DNA everything from Dark Souls to Spelunky owes to this series.  Very good with occasional massive cliff points that are common to all games with this sort of design.

Resident Evil 2 Remake – Incredibly high-quality remake of one of the best games in this series.  The weirdest thing about playing this was the near constant deja vu I felt every time I entered a new space.  Capcom has taken a twenty five year old game and made it modern without sacrificing its soul.  Pretty astounding achievement.  Also: screw the end boss.

Resident Evil 3 Remake – Solid remake of one of the weakest games in the series that unfortunately inherits a lot of the flaws of the original.  This version slides the bar from mystery to combat and weirdly inverts the difficulty pattern of RE2: the bosses are easy but the individual zombies are extra lethal.  Unlike RE2, I have almost no memory of this game and thus no deja vu.  Reminds me more of the Revelations series than classic Resident Evil.

Ghosts of Tsushima – Absolutely beautiful and super fun samurai movie open world game.  Best open-world navigation system in a game ever.  They had me at the first standoff slice.

Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales – The last big-budget console game I worked directly on (over a decade ago now) was a Spider-Man game, and the PTSD from that experience pretty much ruined Marvel’s wise-cracking web-slinger for me.  Or so I thought: between the fantastic Into the Spider-Verse and Insomniac’s two open world Spider-Man games, my faith and interest in the wall crawler has been restored.  My eight year old son loves these games, and can play them despite having limited game playing experience.  Miles is his favorite Spider-Man.

Unfinished Business

I bounced off of a lot of games this year too, and close readers will notice that the theme here is per-minute fidelity.  These titles were designed, I think, to maximize the duration of play afforded by their $60 price tag, but as somebody with only small slices of free time available I am increasingly disinterested in narrative games that value total length over moment-to-moment progression.  I feel the same way about movies: give me a tight 90-minute thriller over a three hour opus any day of the week.

Red Dead Redemption 2 – An amazing technical achievement, and also an unlikely ode to naturalism.  A take on GTA that is both laid back and much more compelling.  Appeals to the nemophilist in all of us.  I’m just not super interested in cowboys and I have trouble playing the bad guy.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla – I really enjoyed the original Assassin’s Creed but haven’t kept up with the series for the last decade.  At some point it apparently changed from a stealth parkouring in ancient cities to, uh, raiding villages with button mash combat in Norway?  I guess London shows up in this title but I didn’t get far enough into it to see it.  I feel like maybe age is starting to narrow my tastes.

Persona 5 – Super stylish RPG that I really enjoyed for ~20 hours or so but I just can’t commit to a title that isn’t going to make any meaningful story progress for thousands of hours.  I may come back to this one.

Judgement – I have never made it through the intro cutscene for any Yakuza game, although they seem like they’d be clearly within my sphere of interest.  I hoped Judgement would be Yakuza without the reliance of five games of backstory, and it probably is that.  I think I just got tired of Kimutaku.

Nier: Automata – I like the style, the game play, the story, the characters, and the world, but man, I just don’t have like 500 hours to spend on something that is clearly going to be about the definition of humanity in a world of robots.  I mean, I can watch Ghost in the Shell in 82 minutes.

Story Games

Death Stranding

As I age I am increasingly disinterested in game mechanics and systems and find myself increasingly focused on narrative value.  These are titles that propose that the story is a fundamentally important aspect of the experience, perhaps the most important aspect.

Death Stranding – Death Stranding has a story, and a ton of time is spent on it, and you can bet there are hours of mega Kojima cutscenes in it, and despite characters with names like DIEHARDMAN the story and world are actually pretty interesting.  But that’s not why it made the list. Very few companies in the world could have even conceived of this game, let alone gotten it funded and built.  I couldn’t figure it out until my coworker offhandedly mentioned that it is about community, and that’s the point at which it clicked.  Yeah, traveling across a future landscape carrying packages to outposts and trying to avoid time ghosts is cool and all, but let me tell you: building roads?  That’s rewarding as hell.

Control and Quantum Break – Two very similar games by Remedy with a 50/50 combat/story split.  Control is the far more interesting of the two in terms of setting, character, and gameplay, but Quantum Break has its moments.  Remedy has been playing with mixing live action video into their games since Alan Wake, and both of these titles do it well.  The weak link in both games is the combat, which gets repetitive and (in the case of Control) can be very visually confusing.  Both titles are exceptionally beautiful in the midst of chaos, though, and when time stops in Quantum Break even the light contrails freeze in place.

Detroit – Technically outstanding but fairly predictable David Cage opus on robot racism.  The production quality is phenomenal and the introduction of a visual story map solves the issues Beyond: Two Souls had with implicit story branches.  Investigating crime scenes and recreating the events that took place is super cool and remains the best part of Cage’s titles.  Folks used to think Cage was a well-funded eccentric, but now it seems that he has helped pave the way to animation-heavy, virtual human-based, dialog-centric adventure games as a category, which describes many of the titles on this list.

AI: The Somnium Files – I am a big fan of Korato Uchikoshi, the author and director of the Zero Escape series, which is one of the most interesting series of games that I’ve played.  AI: The Somnium Files, the first game from Too Kyo Games, a new studio founded by Uchikoshi and Kazutaka Kodaka (director of Danganronpa, another fantastic series), unfortunately misses the mark.  While it retains many of the interesting features of Uchikoshi’s previous games, and adds an interesting dream mode puzzle system, it feels like it’s been dumbed down and aimed at a high school audience.

Best in Class

These are the best games I played this year.

I’ll see you again in 25 years.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons – This game came out just as we began to shelter in place and could not have arrived at a better time.  It kept us sane through the first six months of the pandemic.  My entire family played, a cumulative total of well over 500 hours spent building a town, chatting with animals, organizing rooms, and hunting scorpions.  Nothing has ever held our attention so completely for so long.  Not only is Animal Crossing: New Horizons an astonishing achievement in the history of video games, it contributed significantly to our overall well-being during a time of dramatic uncertainty and stress.

Full Deck Solitaire – Matt Burns and I have exchanged the games we work on every few years for feedback, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never got back to him about his latest, Eliza, because I didn’t finish it.  Not because it isn’t good–I was actually super hooked–but because I got completely sidelined by the Kabufuda Solitaire mini-game built into it.  Something about it triggered a massive de-stress effect at a time when my stress level was unusually high, and I stopped progressing in the story and just started playing solitaire.  I moved to Graeme Devine’s Full Deck Solitaire, which I’ve had installed on my phone forever, and began playing it in the evenings as a replacement for doomscrolling twitter or reddit.  A year later I am still playing Full Deck Solitaire, which offers a huge variety of solitaire game variants (one of which took me 28 hours to complete over 206 attempts–more time than I spent on most of the other games in this list), and still benefitting from the weird, hard-to-describe vaporization of stress that it provides.

Deadly Premonition 2 – I am, of course, a big fan of SWERY’s games, and of Deadly Premonition in particular.  The decade-later sequel got hammered in reviews for frame rate and technical problems, just its predecessor was criticized for janky movement and low texture quality.  In both cases, I think such assessments miss the forest for the trees.  The reason to play a SWERY game is to unlock access to SWERY characters that make up the narrative, and DP2’s character roster is in excellent form.  My initial take was that Deadly Premonition 2 was to True Detective as Deadly Premonition was to Twin Peaks, but now I think that it has more to do with Lost Highway: everybody lives two (or more!) lives.

The Last of Us Part II – It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was with this title on nearly every level.  The production quality alone is perhaps the finest I have ever seen: it is unrelentingly beautiful, convincing, and varied.  Like all good zombie stories TLoU2 is a character drama, and the characters are rendered in exquisite detail, both visually and in the narrative.  These are flawed, incomplete, desperate people, some of them struggling for redemption while others double down on their own faults.  The question posed by the game is not whether or not they’ll achieve their goals but how much humanity it will cost them.  The cast of characters is aggressively non-cliche, from a body-building tough woman to a queer girl out for revenge to a trans man trying to escape persecution to a pregnant bi woman trying to keep her partner alive, and none of them have any sort of moral high ground.  Representation may seem like a small thing, but it’s not: the climax of the story involves the four principle actors and there’s not a white man among them.  And all of this is wrapped up in one of the slickest gameplay and rendering engines ever.  I’d say, “more like this, please!” but I’m not sure that there can be more games like this, at least not immediately.  There are a handful of devs can complete with the raw tech on display in this title (the culmination of many Uncharted games).  But I don’t think anybody is even close to Naughty Dog’s acting, writing, and production quality.  I liked this game so much I even wrote a ton of words about the parts I didn’t like.


That’s it for games.  I was also pretty happy with this piece I wrote about cultural normalization.  It’s been a pretty long year, but 2021 is finally here.  To steal a line from Counting Crows, there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.

The Strings on My Wrists in The Last of Us Part II

The principal trope of the zombie genre is that in an undead-infested apocalypse, it’s the other humans you need to worry about.  A zombie plague is a natural disaster, an epidemic, an indiscriminate force of nature that is driven by neither logic nor passion–it just is.  What the genre has to teach us is that in a desperate situation, the worst atrocities will be perpetrated not by the infected hoards, but by the surviving humans.  This is the central appeal of a zombie movie: it puts characters in a high-pressure situation to see how their humanity holds up.

The craft demonstrated in this title is unbelievable.

The Last of Us Part II proudly continues this tradition.  It is a character drama set in a post-apocalyptic America that is more interested in the lives of the protagonists than the events that caused the destruction of the world.  Its choice of genre forces it to treat its characters like real, believable people, and the title puts huge emphasis on making its cast convincing.

It does this with flair.  The Last of Us Part II is an unprecedented production achievement, a dramatic outlier on many qualitative axes, outshining other AAA games on everything from graphics technology to script writing to voice acting.  It is clearly standing upon the shoulders of Naughty Dog’s previous releases (in particular the Uncharted series), but surpasses those titles in every category.  I was thinking so hard about the story in this game that I spent several nights dreaming about its conclusion.  But it is the very quality of the production that also reveals The Last of Us Part II‘s central challenge: walking the tightrope between character drama and gameplay expression.

All games with storytelling aspirations must find a way to deal with the inherent mismatch of narrative and player choice.  Most forms of narrative in other media are passive: we’re told a story and our role is that only of an observer.  But video games are played with controllers because we are supposed to control them: it is the active participation of the player that separates the medium from other forms of entertainment.  Narrative game designers are often confounded by the melding of passive story consumption with active participation in the game.

Many resolve the conflict by simply keeping the story and gameplay separate.  The story is metered out as the player progresses through the game.  Finish the tasks, watch the cutscene, head to the next room and get yourself a new task.  Beating the level is a turn of the page.  The player steps from one room to the next, performing whatever actions the designer has asked of him, but ultimately has no influence over the arc of the story: he can only move forward along a predetermined path, or not move at all.  He has control over his avatar, but his avatar is itself simply a rat in a maze.

If the activities are fun and the narrative compelling, this is perhaps enough.  At the macro level the arc of the plot can be controlled by its author to ensure that it is interesting.  At the micro level the player still feels that he has agency, at least over moment-to-moment choices.  We often don’t even notice the discrepancy between the macro and the micro because the input at the player’s disposal is not expressive enough to affect the macro-level story.  We never have to worry about what happens if Mario decides to run off with one of the Toad girls he rescues before making it to Princess Peach.  The player simply doesn’t have the input grammar to make such a choice, just as the rat cannot choose to bore holes in the walls of the maze.

Of course, there are games that also attempt to allow the player to influence the macro thread of the story.  Often these are simple binary choices: are you on Path A or Path B, good or evil, rescue or harvest, paragon or renegade, a branch at the macro level that selects one story over another but nevertheless keeps the player on a predetermined path.  Games that attempt a greater level of complexity risk producing a nonsensical story as a result.  But in most cases, story choices in video games boil down to just one more level of abstraction between the macro story path and the micro gameplay mechanics.

The Last of Us Part II’s design philosophy eschews such obvious binary choices and instead relies on small bits of implicit choice within a fixed, predetermined outer layer.  Our avatar is Ellie, and as rats in mazes go she’s got quite a few tools at her disposal.  We can choose to send her left or right, investigate that dilapidated bar down the street or keep moving, sneak past the guards or stab them in the neck, engage the zombies directly or pick them off one at a time, climb up the side of a car to reach a second-story window or slip through a storm drain to access a basement.  We control Ellie’s path through a level segment, but not the sequence of segments itself.  The entire design of this title can be seen as a spectrum from high-fidelity, high-choice micro-level interactions to fixed, macro-level predetermined encounters, level progression, set piece sequences, and overall story arc.

In fact, this design philosophy is a pretty common one, and while the execution in The Last of Us Part II is impeccable, it’s hardly unique.  The appeal of this design is that it makes the player feel as if they have choice while maintaining the impact and the coherency of the story by bounding that choice within a local maximum.  In the ideal case the player never notices the facade, and his perception of agency increases the punch of the story because it feels personal.  But there’s a problem, one that affects The Last of Us Part II more than it does Naughty Dog’s other games, an issue that is intrinsic to the framing of the story as zombie fiction, which is exacerbated precisely because the production quality of the game is so high: it is the moment that we realize that Ellie, our avatar, our rat, is not ours to control at all.

There are moments in Uncharted where the curtain is pulled back and we accidentally catch a glimpse of the rollercoaster ride machinery that powers the game.  Moments when we see that our controller input is more for our own benefit than the game’s, that in order to deliver the dramatic action sequences the series is known for our agency has been quietly suspended.  That’s ok in Uncharted because hey, we didn’t really want to screw up the timing on that train car jump and have to redo it anyway.  We might be on a rollercoaster track but the peaks are high and the drops are fast and that’s what we came here for.  Nathan Drake may murder people every few minutes on his way to raiding yet another tomb, but that’s not so incongruent with his character because he’s an Indiana Jones comic book person.  We don’t need to think too hard about his motivations to have a good time.

But the motivations of the characters in The Last of Us Part II are central to its story.  The point of zombie fiction is to examine the humanity of its characters, and Ellie’s humanity is the central axis upon which the story turns.  Is she a good guy, in the right for wanting to avenge the death of a loved one, fighting only out of necessity, or is she just as bad as the people she’s hunting, a psychopath willing to go to any length to achieve her goals?  The title puts huge effort into making the situation morally ambiguous, even going as far as to give the cannon-fodder bad guys who jump Ellie in the overgrown streets of Seattle proper names (“Oh my god, she shot Sean!” an enemy barks as I drop her companion with a shotgun blast to the chest).

I don’t like this scene, but not for the reasons the designers intended.

In every dilapidated building Ellie finds notes from folks who probably didn’t make it, describing the horror of their lives and the tragedy of their situation.  We’re supposed to feel empathy for these people, even as we direct Ellie to slit their throats.  With highly detailed animation and rendering we can read the expression on Ellie’s face and the faces of her friends.  We can see the blood splatter left by a man who shot himself rather than turn into a zombie.  The reason The Last of Us Part II has such an astoundingly high production value is that emotional expression is in the details, and this title is overflowing with detail.

My version of Ellie is as close to the moral high ground as I can get her.  She doesn’t like to take life unnecessarily.  When confronting humans I prefer to play her stealthily so as to avoid needless bloodshed.  If forced into a situation where the bad guys have to be taken out, I’d rather let the zombies have them than pull the trigger myself.  I only kill another human as a last resort.

For the most part, The Last of Us Part II gives me enough agency to make these decisions.  But upon closer inspection I notice that even my palette of options has been designed to force me to choose between binary extremes.  When confronting other humans there are no non-lethal options, and killing is often the easiest path.  I can’t knock a guard out, I can only drive my knife into her jugular.  The game has removed the middle road: I only have the grammar to murder or sneak, and sneaking is harder.

Of course, this setup is by design.  The game designers want me to have to make hard choices about whether my avatar’s humanity is so important to me that I’ll forego iterating a video game combat loop by route.  Like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this title has an opinion about the righteousness of taking human life, and wants me to reach the same conclusion in the course of play, without having to spell it out.  It has biased my options to produce that effect.  If, like me, you’re a fan of Metal Gear Solid 3, you’ll notice a lot of its DNA in The Last of Us Part II.

But there are points in the game where the macro-level story arc requires an even greater suspension of my choice.  If Ellie is to grow and change as a character, certain events must happen along the way to make that change a believable one.  To increase the punch of those moments, it’s better if they happen while I’m behind the wheel, rather than in a passive cutscene.  But when these events conflict with the way I’d prefer to play Ellie, the illusion is suddenly shattered and I’m left feeling more like the puppet than the puppeteer.

With realistic characters come realistic expectations.

That’s the central problem with the system that The Last of Us Part II employs: when the narrative supersedes the player’s choice to such a degree that the marionette strings the game has been trying to conceal are suddenly revealed, it feels like a breach of trust.  It hurts precisely because the game is so successful at making its characters real human beings who we empathize with.  The dramatic quality of the character drama in this game makes these moments all the more transparent.

There were points in The Last of Us Part II when I put the controller down because I didn’t want to pursue any of the options the game made available to me.  I hoped that inaction would be validated as a choice, that by electing not to Press X to Commit Violence I would be spared the pain of having my hand forced.  Unfortunately, that’s not how the story goes.  The show must go on.

It’s impossible to talk about these moments without spoiling the narrative, but there is a minor optional sequence that is a good encapsulation of this problem. In this sequence Ellie is attacked by three mercenaries in a hotel building on her way to a hospital.  They mistake her for their enemies and jump her.  She has no choice but to shoot these people before they shoot her.  But when you’ve killed all but the last guy, he will grovel and ask to be spared, or dare you to finish him off.  Ellie has no particular beef with these people, they don’t even know who she is, and up until this moment her reaction to their attack feels defensible.  But at the last you are not allowed to spare the survivor.  There’s no option to knock them out (a “strike” will slit their throat), or to tell them to take off, or to tie them up, or any of the other plausible non-lethal solutions to this situation.  If you do nothing they get back up and start shooting again.  It’s important to the designers of this game that Ellie actually kill this person, even though it isn’t necessary.  But the player’s agency must be suspended to enable this little bit of character progression, and it immediately feels like a betrayal.

Perhaps the designers assumed that most players would just kill the guy and move on without much thought.  Just iterate the game mechanic, point the reticle at the bad guy and pull the trigger.  But I think they hoped for more than that.  I think they hoped that the player would feel a little queasy, a little Shadow of the Colossus moment of inner conflict, when following the directions by route seems like the wrong thing to do.  And they are successful–it does feel like the wrong thing to do.  But they’ve also ensured that you have no choice but to go ahead and murder a person who cowers before you.  In doing so, the moral quagmire the encounter was designed to create is immediately defeated because there is no actual choice to be made.  Though these moments are few and far between, they undercut the power of the interactive narrative significantly.

The Last of Us Part II is an amazing game.  It offers deep, exquisite design and technical solutions to some of the problems that have plagued video games for decades.  The story is gripping, the game play is exciting, and the whole thing is beautiful to behold.  It smoothly blends gameplay and narrative in a way that few titles in the history of video games have ever managed to achieve.  But every once in a while the cranes are visible in the rafters, the strings pulling the characters forward catch the light, and we remember that it is, after all, an illusion.

Beam Me Up

The plastic plate affixed to the entrance to the changing room says “Automatic,” but I have to press it anyway.  The door glides open, a Star Trek gateway 245 years early, and quieter too.  After removing my shoes I pass through a cloth curtain hanging over a entry into the main changing area, where I strip down to my skin and leave my clothing in a wicker basket.  At the end of the room is a dark glass door, fogged by condensation, that emits a suction pop when I open it.  Beyond is the main bath area, several shallow pools separated by hard tile floor, each glowing quietly in the dim light.  I sit on a squat stool and shower, making sure to rinse my station when I am done.  Then I slip into the silk of the closest pool and feel my skin light up with the almost-but-not-quite needle pain of 43° C water.


“Westerners can’t handle Japanese onsen,” a high school teacher once told me.  Star Trek: The Next Generation posters adorned the walls of her classroom.  Mrs. Howell had returned from an extended sojourn in Japan armed with a level of fluency that I now recognize as exceptional.  “Five minutes, tops.”  I looked at the poster of Jean-Luc Picard that bordered a hiragana chart and decided that, when I eventually got myself to Japan I wasn’t going to wimp out with the rest of the foreigners.  If Japanese people could do it, so could I.

Fast forward to me at 20, mid-way through a year of study abroad, gingerly stepping into a hot pool at a remote bath house just east of The Great Seto Bridge.  It is a shocking level of heat, so hot that it feels cold, frostbite jaws sinking into my calves.  The water hasn’t yet reached my knees but I’m unable to continue, so I sit down on the edge of the pool and hope that this is a necessary step in the process of acclimatization.  Perhaps once the outer layer of skin has filleted away the nerves below will deaden.  On the other side of the pool a Japanese man sits neck deep in the magma.  His glasses have fogged up so I can’t see his eyes, but he appears to be asleep.  Or dead.  Or possibly meditating.  Firewalking Yogi have nothing on this guy.

Slowly, painfully, I lower myself into the water up to the waist.  The initial Hellraiser needle attack has passed but in its place is an unrelenting heat, a sustained, drawn out sting, a synthesizer note held too long.  Like having blood drawn.  Set phasers to hematidrosis, people.  After two minutes I eject and find that the lower half of my body is cosplaying as boiled shrimp.  I am self-conscious about being naked in public but there’s no way to hide my eggshell whiteness here.  The Yogi turns to look at me as I leave, alive after all and apparently unable to feel pain.  Shucking my weaksauce foreigner onsen tolerance was clearly going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Later that year I have another chance, this time in a hotel on an island near Hiroshima, the one with the famous torii gate standing in its bay.  I was able to abide the circular marble pool in my hotel up to my navel for almost five minutes.  In Tottori, I tried my first outdoor onsen at a ryokan.  The cool night air helped regulate the water’s rough-play acupuncture and I was able to sink in up to my neck.  I shared the pool with a grandfather and his two-year old granddaughter, who giggled as she splashed hot water at him from the safety the edge of the bath, submerged only to her ankles.  It dawned on me that the key to enjoying this practice might be repetitive exposure.  Despite managing to dip deeper into the pool I was still unable to remain in the water for more than a few minutes.

I am envious of how Japanese people describe their bath experience.  The feeling of ultimate relaxation, of ejecting pollutants from the body through sweat.  They speak of an end of muscle pain and an opportunity to think deeply.  Even the home bathtub, a deeper and more advanced contraption than the ceramic casks we have in the West, sounds rapturous when described by the Japanese.  But underlying my desire to bathe like the Japanese is a deeper, more primitive motivation: pride.  Pride that I can operate within a foreign society correctly.  A challenge to myself to learn the rules and execute them, as if culture was just a computer program for which the proper input will return a success code.  To boldly go where no foreigner has gone before.


The arrogance implicit in that train of thought is not lost of me.  My experience abroad as a student was one of normalization, of figuring out how to find my balance on an unfamiliar cultural surface.  I like to think that I exited that process with significantly more humility than I had going in, but a quiet voice in the back of my head wonders not-so-subtlely whether the process has ever really ended.  Surely, the voice whispers, there is no greater display of hubris than claiming freedom from arrogance.  Captain Kirk came in peace, but that didn’t stop him from treating the remote planets he encountered as lesser than himself, mired in their own weird ways, a puzzle for him to decipher.

Still, I have returned to Japan and visited an onsen nearly every year for the last two decades.  In Hakone I enjoyed a private rotenburo, an outdoor bath attached to a hotel room.  In Okayama I tried yakuto, a medicinal bath, which came with a warning that my “important bits” would “tingle,” a description that wholly undersold the level or duration of pain the yellow water had to offer.  In Tottori I submerged myself in a lightly irradiated sodium chloride concoction that is supposed to help with everything from high blood pressure to gout.  One evening after dusk I got into a kawaraburo, an outdoor, mixed-gender, zero-privacy hot springs in the middle of a river.  I expected to find mostly old men there and was surprised by a clientele of young couples.  I talked to some guys who built industrial ships in Shimane and were visiting for a company offsite.  Once, in an attempt to survive a brutal 36-hour business trip to Tokyo, I checked into a sento in Roppongi, an artificially heated bath and sauna, and quickly decided that Roppongi is not the best place for public bathing.  My wife and I even tried a few rounds of ganbanyoku, which eschews the bath altogether and instead involves wearing pajamas and laying on a very hot slab of rock and void yourself of moisture through your pores.

This year, sitting in an outdoor bath in Hokkaido, with snow lazing just beyond the thatched awning, I realize that I have, at some point, gotten used to the heat.  The delta of time between my birth and my first onsen attempt is now shorter than the subsequent term between that initial dip and today.  Oddly, the conquering of my foreign “weakness” doesn’t seem so important any longer.  I can’t even remember when I stopped thinking about whether or not I had cleared Mrs. Howell’s five minute threshold.  With age my waistline has rushed forward while my metabolism has retreated, but even so I’ve lost the awkward self-consciousness about my body that plagued young adulthood.  When I bring my son to the onsen he splashes and swims around and switches pools every few minutes, but he doesn’t seem to mind the heat.  I make him submerge his body up to his neck and count to ten before he gets out, a practice I’ve seen other fathers enforce.  Hopefully he’ll never feel that an enjoyable evening in a bath is about having something to prove.

Come on, Kirk. Just one smooch.

Maybe this is what real cultural normalization is about.  Maybe it’s about not worrying if I can execute a traditional procedure with rigid precision, not kicking myself when I should have said gobusatashiteorimasu instead of ohisashiburidesu, not feeling self-conscious on the train, and not timing how long I can sit in a hot bath.  Perhaps normalization is having the confidence to ignore the script and the humility to do it without making an ass of myself.  I’d like to think that my onsen experience is an indication that I’ve achieved some level of real normalization, a feat that doesn’t have so much to do with tolerance to hot water after all.  Cue Captain Kirk embracing his latest alien conquest as she swoons in his weird, foreign arms.

Then again, that little voice whispers, maybe I’m not quite there yet.

A Glance at Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water

I purchased a WiiU because I shipped a game for it and figured I should actually have one to play on.  My first two purchases were (naturally) ZombieU and Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.  I’ve completed every Fatal Frame game to date (excepting FF4, which I got stuck in), and the series has always occupied a place in my heart as part of the trifecta that put survival horror on the map.  With Resident Evil you get bombast, zombies, and recursive map unlocking.  With Silent Hill you get introspection, symbolism, and hell.  You go to Fatal Frame for high-end ghost stories as only the Japanese can tell them.  It’s been almost twenty years since the first Fatal Frame shipped, but playing the fifth installment of the spectral series in 2019 feels as if the gap in time has been surgically narrowed, years and console generations stitched together to produce a modern rendering of a tried-and-true formula.  Fatal Frame 5 is a dyed-in-the-wool Fatal Frame game, and I love it.

This game is beautiful.

The premise of Koei Tecmo’s latest girls-vs-ghosts romp revolves around a mountain that has become a popular suicide spot.  There are, of course, some shrines on this mountain, and if you’ve every played any Fatal Frame game you already know that some Bad Shit went down at these shrines sometime long ago.  And if you weren’t sure, Maiden of Black Water will show you these transgressions in extremely well-rendered black and white flashbacks.  Like Fatal Frame 3 before it, you play as several different characters, each has a reason to go the mountain and a deep, dark secret.  On the way they’ll encounter a variety of ghosts that can only be dispatched by use of an antique Camera Obscura.

All of this should sound pretty standard for fans of the Fatal Frame series.  In fact, what piqued my interest about this title was the news that it was designed and produced by the dudes who created the series, Makoto Shibata and Keisuke Kikuchi.  Everything about Fatal Frame 5 is familiar.  The combat system based on timing your camera shots properly.  The unlikely outfits worn by the protagonists.  The ghosts’ propensity to relive their deaths in front of you over and over as part of their attack sequence.  Lost Japanese villages and shrines, ancient torii gates, and rooms full of hina dolls.  It’s all there.

A fatal glance.

I think the areas that are the most interesting are those where the design differs from the formula.  My favorite is the Fatal Glance system.  When a spirit has been defeated there is a small window of time when their phantasmal visage can be touched.  If you’re fast enough to reach them before they evaporate completely, “glancing” the ghost shows you a blurry video of their final mortal moments.  The video is highly distorted, a VHS tape after too many copies, rendered in black and white or chromatically aberrated blues and greens.  The cursed video from The Ring, except there are tons of them, one for nearly every ghost, and each tells a mini story about the awful ways that these people met their ends.

In Japanese horror, the antagonist is almost always presented in a sympathetic light.  Ghosts in particular often operate on onnen, the concept of emotion so powerful that it persists beyond the grave.  Those that die in the throes of emotion are more likely to return as vengeful ghosts, and that implies that these people suffered cruel deaths at the hands of others.  Thus we find many stories, antique and contemporary, of dangerous ghosts who were made that way by the cruel actions of others.  They may be monsters now, but their origins are pitiful, and many stories focus on the path to the antagonist’s salvation.  This pattern is part of what gives Japanese horror its unique flavor, and if you’re interested in this topic you could read my article about the fundamentals of Japanese horror.

A look into her soul.

Fatal Frame 5’s Fatal Glance system turns the concept of onnen, which runs like a subterranean waterway through the stories of the series, into an actual game mechanic.  The ghosts in the Fatal Frame series have always been mini-narratives themselves, suggesting (or even reenacting) their moment of death with their appearance and attack sequence.  The woman who falls from above and then attacks with her neck broken and sideways.  The girl who was pulled into the well and now resides there forever.  Intrepid players have even noticed that a few ghosts wear their kimonos with the right side covering the left, the way that corpses are dressed, suggesting that they were given a proper funeral.  But the Fatal Glance system takes this idea and dramatically amplifies it, creating a tiny story for every ghost.  Finding and collecting them is a pleasure, and more than a little creepy.

There are a lot of mechanical issues with Fatal Frame 5, and many of them have plagued the series since its inception.  It’s still nearly impossible to fight in closed quarters because the ghosts can go behind walls where you can’t target them.  Fighting two or more enemies at once is a recipe for frustration.  The story repeats its details, over and over, until all subtlety is lost.  The over-the-shoulder camera system introduced in FF4 (replacing, to my great dismay, the amazing system used best in FF2) returns, but moving around with this system in any direction but forward is highly awkward.  Using the WiiU tablet as the camera interface seems cool, but in practice switching your attention between screens is awkward.

But none of these issues stop Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water from being a highly satisfying game, particularly for narrative detail seekers, with a quality of execution that has no peer in the genre.

Muv-Luv: Subverting the Form

Yoriko Douguchi is not interested in your crap.

In 1967 yakuza filmmaker Seijun Suzuki was fired from his job at Nikkatsu Company for being too weird.  He made 40 films in 12 years for Nikkatsu, each allocated less than 40 days of production from start to finish.  Steadily his movies got stranger and stranger.  At one point in Tokyo Drifter (1966), the entire set inexplicably turns white.  In Branded to Kill (1967, his last film for Nikkatsu), the contract killer protagonist becomes roommates with his target, who is also trying to kill him.  Although Nikkatsu produced a huge volume of films during the 1950s and 1960s, today Suzuki’s are the only ones that anybody remembers.

In the 1970s Nikkatsu burned through the yakuza film crop and switched to pinku eiga soft porn.  This effort saved the company, and by the 1980s they were willing to fund just about any film as long as it met its nudity quota.  Junior filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa produced two movies for Nikkatsu in the early 1980s, including The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (1985), which he wrote, directed, and edited.  Nikkatsu probably expected Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl to be a sexy movie about a naive girl who learns about sex from free-spirited college students, but what they got instead was a weird art film about shame and personal boundaries.  Like Kurosawa’s later films, The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl has a dream-like quality to it, and it’s never clear if the events on the screen are to be taken literally or as a metaphor for something else.[1]  Nikkatsu fired Kurosawa, who eventually bought the film back and released it himself.  Twelve years later, Kurosawa appeared seemingly out of nowhere with Cure (1997), the first in a series of weird and very scary films that established him as one of Japan’s most interesting contemporary directors.

Suzuki and Kurosawa were working on pulp films that came with a lot of restrictions, both in terms of genre expectations and production logistics.  Yet both directors tried to do something interesting within their form.  They met the guidelines of their genres but found ways to subvert the content of their work.  Perhaps the constraints themselves helped them produce films that are startling and creative.  It’s clear that Suzuki and Kurosawa used their pulp genres as a cover for their more complex ideas.

I can’t help but wonder if the same is true for the Muv-Luv series.  The visual novel series consists of three games (Muv-Luv Extra, Unlimited, and Alternative), which must be played in progression to be understood.  Like all visual novels these games are nearly all dialog between the protagonist and other characters in the story, which are depicted as flat images against a background.  As with many visual novels, the initial setup to Muv-Luv involves a male protagonist surrounded by women, each of whom is a potential conquest.  But like Kurosawa and Suzuki, Koki Yoshimune, the author of the Muv-Luv series, seems to have more complicated ambitions for his pulp.

Pretty much what you’d expect, right?

I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable with the first Muv-Luv game (now titled Muv-Luv Extra, a variant of the original adults-only release that has had its explicit bits removed for international and console releases).  It’s well-written and funny, but it plays exactly to the dating game visual novel form.  Every choice in the game is a proxy for selecting a woman from the cast that fits your personal preferences.  Every member of the cast (which is entirely women) seems to be there primarily to give you a wide range of sexual conquest options.  And to make this narrative work, the characters all have to be secretly in love with the protagonist.  It’s a transparent, and frankly pretty boring, male power fantasy.  “Maybe you shouldn’t play this one in public,” my wife advised me after looking over my shoulder at my Vita.


The moment Muv-Luv Unlimited booted up, I knew my initial time investment had been worth it.  In Unlimited, Takeru Shirogane, the protagonist of Extra, wakes to find himself in an alternate dimension where humanity is fighting for survival (with big mechs) against alien hoards.  His high school is a military base, his classmates are cadets, and he’s the only one of them that didn’t grow up learning how to be a solider.  The male power fantasy is immediately turned on its head: instead of being the object of desire of every woman within a 5 mile radius, Takeru is the loser of the group.  He can’t keep up with the other girls in his squad.  They can out run him, out shoot him, out-everything him.  In fact, they think he’s dead weight that is holding them back from graduating into full-fledges soldiers.  Most of Unlimited is Takeru getting his butt realigned by a cadre of capable women who are tired of his bullshit.  Every once in a while the game will remember its roots as a fan service dating game and put one of the female characters in some compromising position, or force them all to wear revealing battle suits.  But most of the time it can’t be bothered: Yoshimune is too busy world-building with mechs and aliens and complex ethical questions to spend time on cheesecake.

By the time Muv-Luv Alternative rolls around, any hint of the series’ dating game roots has been thrown entirely out the window.  If Unlimited is about cutting Takeru down to size physically, Alternative is a litigation of his failures as a human being.  It is unmitigated misery, mostly of his own making.  The number of choices available to the player also fades away, and the game becomes an almost entirely linear story.  Alternative forces Takeru to deal with his own privilege as somebody from a world where he was safe enough to be a carefree idiot.  It forces him to untangle sticky ethics dilemmas, find a personal reason to fight, and cultivate his relationships carefully.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster, a mecha war epic, exceptionally detailed and complex, about the last thing you’d expect from a series that began as a lacrosse team love triangle.


Alternative is where Yoshimune’s design really starts to shine.  It takes a long time (I’m guessing that I clocked somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 hours between all three games), but eventually he has eased you into an insane world that is populated by characters that you know exceptionally well.  He uses the tropes of the dating game genre to establish detailed characters (because, like horror, an emotionally-relevant dating game needs characters that you actually care for), then puts those characters into an extreme situation to see how they respond.  The protagonist is forced to grow up, and the player might be asked to do a little maturing of their own along the way.

Like Suzuki and Kurosawa it is clear that Yoshimune is using the visual novel dating format as a stealth transmission system for a much more complex topic.  I might even go as far as to say that it’s something of a slap in the face to fans of the types of games that Muv-Luv Extra is modeled after, an idea which Yoshimune seems to corroborate.  The Muv-Luv series isn’t perfect (and it’s a shame that it’s been saddled with such a terrible name), but it’s worth playing to see how visual novels can support works that are much more complex than the genre is known for.


[1] For the record, my money is on Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl being about university as a transitional period, where young adults are free to experiment with their identities and personal boundaries before eventually being assimilated (as the movie depicts, by force) into adult society after graduation.  A sort of Japanese Rumspringa.

2018 In Review

Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, I almost never play games the moment that they come out.  I’m too busy, or I’m in the middle of something else, or (more often than I’d like to admit) I don’t even realize that a game I’m interested in has shipped.  I miss out on a little of the zeitgeist that surrounds the launch of important games, but generally I feel better equipped to analyze (and enjoy!) a title with a little distance.

Here are some of the games I played in 2018.  Not all of them shipped in 2018, but I played them last year so they are 2018 titles to me.  I’ve omitted VR games from this list as I work closely with many of the developers who produced my favorite VR titles this year, and so calling them out seems a little disingenuous.

Interesting Reads

Zero Time Delimma is the third game in the Zero Escape series.  Like its predecessors (999 and Virtue’s Last Reward), it is a puzzle-laden visual novel that operates on a (genius) trick.  This series is the most self-aware video game series I have ever played.  Not only is it built around the way games are actually played, it takes advantage of those patterns in fascinating ways.

Danganronpa 2 and Danganronpa V3Like the Zero Escape series, Danganronpa grew out of the visual novel genre, and alternates between wacky characters and deadly serious murder mysteries.  These games try different approaches to world exploration, but the real magic (and massive frustration) is all in the class trials that reveal the killer behind every murder.  This series has struggled with finding ways to mix mechanical challenges with the long expository sequences common to visual novels, and though it’s not perfect, the story itself carries it through the rough patches.

OK, you’ve got my attention.

MUVLUV Extra.  The jury is still out on this one.  After hearing that Hajime Isayama got the idea for Attack on Titan from a video game, I was determined to figure out what it was.  I was surprised to find out that he was referring to a visual novel series called MUVLUV, specifically MUVLUV Alternative, the third game in a series that started off as an adult visual novel.  These days the naughty bits have been removed and the series ships for consoles and Steam.  The Steam reviews for MUVLUV Alternative are fascinating, with many players with hours and hours of game time on record claiming that the title fundamentally changed their life.  I am not a fan of visual novels (with the massive exception of the two series I just wrote about above, and Kamaitachi No Yoru), but after reading all that my interest was piqued.  Apparently the third game can only be understood after the first two have been completed, so I dove in with the first MUVLUV this winter.

So far the results are pretty disappointing.  MUVLUV Extra is exactly what you would expect from the visual novel genre: you play as a high school boy who must select one of his busty classmates (all of which are secretly in love with him) as his mate.  The writing is funny and the characters are not entirely one dimensional, but yep, it’s a visual novel dating game with no hint of turning into something more.  I’ll report back after I’ve finished the other two games in the series.  Fingers crossed this time investment pays off.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a parody of what MUVLUV Extra is exactly, with some fun twists and a couple of super great puzzles.  It’s free and you should play it.  It takes a little too long to become interesting, but stick with it.

Horror Games

World of Horror.  A Japan-themed game that looks like an old B&W Mac game?  This is so, so my jam.

White Day is a remake (by the original director) of a 2001 Korean horror game by the same name.  These days it’s cleaned up nice and you can play it on a PC or PS4.  It’s exactly the kind of game I want to play (and pretty similar to the types of games I want to make), but suffers from a punishing stealth system that blocks all progression for hours at a time.  Meh.

Yomawari 2.  It’s exactly like Yomawari, which I adored.  These games do not care about you.  You will die.  Don’t let the cute RPG art style fool you.  These games are out for blood.

DetentionA Taiwanese side scroller horror game that is a) super scary and b) super interesting.  Exactly the combination I am looking for in an horror game.  Play this.

The Evil Within. My entire review of The Evil Within is summed up by this screenshot of a bird with a collectable item on its back standing in the middle of the air where the item cannot be collected.

The Evil Within 2. Much better than its predecessor.  Some really nice scenes.  Story doesn’t matter.  Too long.

Stories UntoldA series of interactive puzzles that, over time, become a single narrative.  The presentation quality is top notch (if a little too Stranger Things) and the puzzles themselves are pretty fun (I liked the text adventure the best).

Other Good Stuff

Thimbleweed Park. A great adventure game by the guy who invented adventure games.  So many lovely modernizations and little innovations to fans of the genre.

VirginiaLots of game designers secretly wish they were film directors, but  this is probably the first time I’ve played a game that actually is (pretty much) a film.  Super interesting approach.  I wonder if this style is repeatable.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Amazing achievement in the history of video games.  The first Zelda game I have ever enjoyed.

Hidden My Game By Mom 3.  This is what your phone was made for.

2018 Game of the Year

These last three fucking doughnuts are going to kill me.

The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories.  The first release from SWERY’s new studio is a queer platformer in which the protagonist has to intentionally hurt herself by jumping into spinning blades and setting herself on fire in order to progress.  Like all SWERY games, the mechanical challenges (which are good and hard) yield new story details, which in turn make the level mechanics more interesting.  One of the best bits is the story reveal mechanism itself: you learn about the protagonist and her friends by reading text messages on her phone, complete with stamps, memes, and emoji.  Add in some Twin Peaks dream talking and puzzles that involve rolling around as a decapitated head and you’ve got a title that is fun, weird, and thought provoking.

Searching South Korea for Obscure Horror Games in 90 Minutes

The directions on my phone said that I should take Exit 4 out of the subway, turn left at the light, and continue through a commuter tunnel (which, from the picture, looked a bit dank, the way we used to use that word before it was about drugs or memes).  I would emerge before a giant billboard positioned above a squat door that was the only entry to my destination.  From there my online guide assured me that I would descend into a sprawling network of hallways where video game treasures, both contemporary and obscure, could be purchased for a song.  I was on my way to Video Game Alley, Seoul’s premier electronic entertainment emporium / basement.

I glanced at my watch.  I had abandoned my family in a Western-style department store owned by a chewing gum company, skipped lunch, and spent the better part of an hour navigating color-coded subway lines until I managed to arrive at Sinyongsan Station.  I had just under an hour and a half to find this flea market of dreams and get back to my hotel in time to catch a taxi to the airport, ideally reuniting with my wife and children at some point before I left the country.

As I climbed the steps of Exit 4 I mulled over the potential consequences screwing this up.  If I got lost I would miss my flight, then miss our subsequent connecting flight in Tokyo, which would almost certainly wreck the ensuing trip to the countryside my in-laws had planned for us.  The cascade of failure events wouldn’t end there–my programmer brain decided that, depending on how badly my luck went, there were plausible scenarios in which I would be renounced by my family and forced to live as a vagrant.  I speak no Korean whatsoever, my destination was a vague sequence of directions, and my only means of communication a rapidly-dying phone with 2G international roaming.  On the butterfly effect scale I rated this outing A Sound of Thunder.

Still, I’d already come this far.  Besides, I was on a mission: I’d learned of an ultra-obscure, South Korea-only survival horror PS2 game (from fellow horror enthusiast / broken person @Grendesu) called Mystic Nights, and I had to have it.  I’ve trawled Akihabara and Den Den Town, the street markets in Hong Kong and the night markets in Taiwan, looking for weird, obscure video games, and these days it is rare to come across something in this genre that is entirely unknown to me.  But Mystic Nights was something new, something I wasn’t going to find on Amazon, something worth searching for.  It might be a terrible game, but the only way to find out for sure was to delve into this subterranean cavity of electronic entertainment.

To my dismay, Exit 4 looked nothing like the photos attached to my guide.  Worse, the subsequent directions didn’t make sense: there was no light to go left at, no commuter tunnel.  I was standing in the middle of a major business thoroughfare which was definitely way too modern and swank to accommodate a dingy nerd den.  The blog I had sourced for this trip was only eight months old, but apparently the entire Sinyongsan area had been rebuilt in that time (such is the rate of growth in Seoul these days, I guess).  If I had a mechanical watch I would have been able to feel the minute hand moving.

I don’t know exactly how I figured out which way to go.  Maybe it was my programmer brain, debugging the problem in the background while I stood around looking like an idiot for ten minutes.  Maybe it was my rising level of panic.  Whether asynchronous problem solving or panic-induced adrenaline, it somehow dawned on me that the subway exits had been renumbered.  This lead me to another exit, the True Exit 4, which linked up to a pedestrian tunnel (which was nothing like the photo, but I was running out of options fast), which deposited me at the edge of a broad intersection that looked like it might be seedy enough to conceal a sanctum of digital entertainment.

And there I stopped. This is where my sherpa blog fell silent.  Rows of sketchy vendors selling decrepit flip phones by the pound stretched down the street before me.  The key landmark in this area, a giant Playstation billboard, was nowhere to be seen.  To my right a man was selling printers of all shapes and sizes, similar only in that each was built before the invention of USB.  He had them stacked like skulls at the border of his stall.

I had just under 60 minutes.  Half that, my programmer brain warned me, to account for the train ride back my hotel.

There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indy, hot on the trail of the Holy Grail, has to take a leap of faith into a deep underground cavern.  He steps into space and comes down unexpectedly upon a stone bridge that is hidden in plain sight.  The stone color of the bridge is so similar to the chasm below it that it is nearly invisible until the camera pans across the scene and it is revealed by the power of parallax.  Wishing I felt/looked more like Harrison Ford, I extended my foot over the edge of the curb and stepped forward towards the flip phone vendors.

If you’re ever in South Korea and need old games, this guy will hook you up.

The billboard, it turned out, was right in front of me.  It had been stripped of its Playstation advertisement and stood naked against the side of the building, identifiable only by the thin metal frame that surrounded it.  Nestled below it, as promised by the outdated blog post to which I had pinned my dreams and possibly my future, stood a little unmarked door.

Video Game Alley is less of an alley and more like a narrow hallway, a gauntlet of five-foot stalls holding tables jam-packed with plastic game boxes.  At 1 PM on a weekday it was deserted.  Many of the stalls were empty, covered in black cloth.  In a few, middle aged women snoozed in their chairs, barely visible behind great stacks of CD cases.  I was the only customer in the entire place.

I found a stall that sported both PS2 games and a conscious proprietor and made a bee line for it.  It was immediately apparent that neither of us spoke a word of each other’s language, but I was able to communicate my goal via the universal tongue of pointing at a picture on my cell phone.  This guy didn’t have Mystic Nights for sale, but he hurried me over to another stall, threw back the black cloth that market it as closed for business, and began sorting through a massive library of PS2 games.  I ran my finger along the opposite side of the stack, desperately trying to remember what the Hangul for Mystic Nights looks like.

I could tell you about finding the game, waiting for the man to call the owner of the closed stand, and paying about $30 for it.  I could tell you about how the middle aged women all woke up and stared as I left with my prize, probably wondering what single game could drive a clueless tourist into their domain.  I could tell you that, as I left Video Game Alley, I realized that the massive Yongsan Station is literally across the street.  I could tell you about getting home, booting Mystic Nights, and playing for about ten minutes before consigning it to the pile of unfinished horror games that I keep telling myself I will complete someday.

But instead I will tell you this: after I deciphered the train fare, after I made my way back to the station near my hotel, after I collected our bags and found a seat in the lobby, I looked at my watch.  I had made it back to our rendezvous point with ten minutes to spare.  I pulled Mystic Nights out of its bag and looked at the case, turned it over in my hands.  It wasn’t just an obscure video game.  It was victory.

I Hope This Is Not Chris’s Blood

Everybody likes a good voice acting joke.  Part of the charm and legacy of Resident Evil has always been its terrible (and terribly-delivered) lines.  We’ve been laughing about Jill sandwiches and masters of unlocking for two decades.

I used to wonder how those lines made it into production in an otherwise high-end (and generally well-translated) game.  Perhaps there were no native English speakers involved with the VO production? Maybe the team just didn’t care?  In some deep trench in my brain, beyond the reach of my skepticism filter, a little whisper wondered if the poor voice acting in the original Resident Evil might have been intentional.  Could the latent ridiculousness of that entire series perhaps be the product of design and not just a reflection of American media in a warped Japanese mirror?

This entire train of thought jumped the tracks when I started adding voice acting to my own games.  The answer was suddenly very clear: good voice acting in video games is hard!  Like, really hard!  It’s hard to write good dialog, it’s hard to find (and direct) a good actor, it’s hard to make a 3D game character emote in a believable way while playing a sound file that is supposed to be words coming out of their mouth.  If you’re not careful, there could be a massive delay between the writing of the script, the recording of the dialog, and the actual integration of the recording into the game.  By the time you figure out it’s not working very well, it might be too late (or too expensive) to change.

It was with more than a little trepidation that I approached voice acting for DEAD SECRET CIRCLE.  I had fun writing the dialog system itself, but found the prospect of getting lines recorded daunting.  With text, I can noodle on the word selection or the speed at which information is released to the player all the way up until the launch of the game.  But with voiced dialog, I had to commit to my own writing a lot earlier than I wanted to.  My fear that the actual words would sound lame once played in the game was unassuageable.  Nothing destroys the mood in a horror game faster than a poorly-delivered line.

Finally I did the sensible thing and turned to an expert for help.  I called my good friend and fellow narrative game design geek David Chen.  David wrote the story and ran production for Narcosis, and he’s quite the veteran when it comes to dialog and voice production (look for his name in the credits of any recent Metal Gear Solid game), so I asked him to handle recording and editing for DEAD SECRET CIRCLE.

David sliced into my text like a surgeon removing a tumor.  Editing for vocal performance seems to be a completely different skill from editing for readability. He inserted strategic ellipses, added notes about emphasis and context, and removed weird words that nobody actually says out loud to convert my ~300 lines of dialog into an actual script.  We recorded the entire game over the course of two days, using actors and a (fantastic) engineering team David sourced.  This was the point at which I had to finally let go of my dialog and let it get chiseled into stone.  I was thankful to have an expert to run the session for me.

Something weird happened over the course of the recording: my dialog took on a life of its own.  I have read these lines to myself in my head a thousand times, but coming out of the actor’s mouths they suddenly sounded different.  The performances were stellar, but it was more than that.  These weren’t my words anymore–I was hearing the voice of my characters.  The sensation was very strange, a sort of deja vu, like seeing your reflection wink.  I guess this probably happens to script writers all the time, but it was a first for me.

After recording wrapped the lines were cut up into files, integrated into the game, and hooked up to animation, and we saw our completed characters for the first time just a few weeks before the game was scheduled to be released.  The result was shockingly better than I had anticipated, even though we’d had placeholder VO integrated for months.  Now that the game is out and we can see the reaction of real players, I feel even better about how the dialog, VO, and character animation came together.

But it could have gone the other way.  Dialog recording always comes late in the project development cycle because there are just too many other parts of a game that need to be operational before the final script can be decided upon.    Dialog recording is expensive and time-consuming to redo, and yet the overall quality of the finished scene can’t be properly assessed until all of the lines are in place.  I wonder if bad voice acting in otherwise high-end games is the result of time pressure more than anything else.  Maybe by the time those games realized that something was wrong it was simply too late to change.

Many thanks to the actors that made Dead Secret Circle’s characters come alive: Deena Odelle Hyatt, Clifton S. Romig, Gwen Loeb, Regina Morones, Charles Parker, Anna XL Wong, and Jeff Mattas, not to mention our amazing audio engineers and sound designers Chris Colatos and Michael Cox.

Finding the Path Through Walking Simulators

I wonder, did they assign chapter and verse to the stones and grasses, marking the geography with a superimposed significance; that they could actually walk the bible and inhabit its contradictions?
– Dear Esther

As a game developer interested in the mechanics of storytelling within my chosen medium, I have found myself fascinated with the genre known, somewhat pejoratively, as walking simulators.  These are titles that have traded away nearly all of the inner mechanisms of video games, the cranks and belts and springs, to focus on story above all else.  These are vehicles for narrative, although as vehicles they are more like the cab of a roller coaster than an automobile.  There is no gear to engage, no gas pedal to depress, and certainly no race to win.  In a walking simulator you simply move forward through the story until you reach the end.  The folks who coined the term by which the genre is now named intended it to sound boring, as if walking is the most mundane activity you could possibly engage in.  But the term has stuck, probably because it captures the core design tenet of this genre: it’s not what you do, it’s where you do it.

A more accurate (but less punchy) label for this genre might be “exploring characters as space.”  Most of the titles I’ve played in this genre present a beautiful environment for the player to explore, but the real topic of investigation is the inner lives of the characters in the story.  The environment is a 3D interactive expression of those characters and their relationships, though at a glance it might look like Ye Olde Haunted House, The Abandoned Space Station, The Destroyed City, or any number of other common video game locales.  In Gone Home, the unlocking of an abandoned Oregon home is also an unearthing of the lives of its residents.  In Here They Lie, we are perhaps threading our way not through a bombed-out city, but through a ruined consciousness.  What Remains of Edith Finch goes as far as to assign unique rooms to each of its mysteriously missing characters.

The mapping of physical space to narrative space is easy to understand.  Video games have good, mature systems for navigating physical spaces.  We all know how to WASD our way through a first-person doorway, or drive our perspective through a landscape by rotating the right analog stick.  The idea of the walking simulator is to use the systems of navigation originally built for shooters to deliver narrative.  In a book you read a sentence, in a game you walk down a hallway.  In virtual space, what’s the difference?

The problem that these titles face is pacing.  An author writing a book knows that their work will be consumed linearly, starting at the first page and ending at the last, and it’s up to them to decide how quickly the events of the story unfold.  Less than four paragraphs ago I described walking simulators as roller coasters, but a book or short story is actually a better fit for that metaphor.  There are ups and downs, anticipation and thrills, but ultimately the reader is not in control.  They are traversing a track that the author has laid.

Choice is a fundamental aspect of modern video games.  Not all games have meaningful choices, but most at least attempt to give the illusion of choice.  It might be as simple as deciding to visit the room on the left before the room on the right, even if both must eventually be visited for the story to continue.  One of the key challenges of the walking simulator is deciding how much flexibility to give the player.

Many titles deal with dilemma by trying to separate choices from traversal.  If the story has been mapped to 3D space and, in the interest of drama, we want to control its pacing, the traversable field must be narrow.  Firewatch has a (fantastic) dialog system that presents interesting choices that are mostly decoupled from the space.  Tacoma integrates dialog directly into traversal by providing the player with recordings of conversations that move through space.  Asemblance features a small set of memories that the player visits over and over, finding new ways to interact with them at each visit.  SOMAHere They Lie, and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (arguably the forefather of the modern walking simulator genre) all include stealth and escape sequences.  Still, these titles are traversal-heavy and activity-light.

I think this is a very delicate balance for these games to tread.  On the one hand, walking simulators are built on the theory that the narrative can carry the player though to the end.  On the other hand, the medium that has been chosen to express this narrative is one that is intrinsically interactive.  There’s a sliding scale of interaction here, where increasing the player’s ability to affect the world decreases the author’s ability to control the delivery of the narrative (and, consequently, its impact).  This approach also puts all of the engagement weight on the story.  While other genres can supplement game mechanics for story to keep a player engaged, walking simulators cannot.  What Remains of Edith Finch tries to solve this by changing the traversal (and therefore narrative expression) mechanics with a series of vignettes, but most games in this genre live and die by their narrative’s hook.

It’s interesting to compare the walking simulator genre to other narrative-first genres, such as the visual novel genre.  Most visual novels are really just Choose Your Own Adventure affairs, with dialog and branching story options and little else.  But recently titles like Danganronpa and the Zero Escape series have shown how this model can be used for something more complicated.  The Zero Escape games, particularly Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma, are just a series of dialog sequences that are glued together with escape rooms.  You listen to a lot of characters talk for a while, then solve some light escape room puzzles, then make a decision.  These titles are just as narrative-focused as the walking simulators, but instead of 3D traversal they’ve put their energy into activities.  What makes them so special is that they explicitly, in the course of the narrative, address the structural requirements of video games: dying and restarting, going back and changing a decision, the illusion of real choice.  This activity-heavy/traversal-light model is also be able to sustain attention for longer: these titles clock in at 20 or 30 hours of play, compared to the 2 ~ 5 hour terms of most walking simulators.

Somewhere in between the walking simulators and the Zero Escape titles are the traversal-heavy/activity-heavy games.  Shenmue is probably the root of this genre, although classic Adventure games and golden age horror games also seem like related influencers.  David Cage’s games fall into this category, as does Until Dawn and Life is Strange.  These are titles with lots of story, lots of dialog, and lots of detailed spaces to explore.  But they also have activities to perform, puzzles to solve, and (occasionally) enemies to defeat.  When they work, these games are amazing.  But they are also exceptionally complicated and expensive, in many ways the antithesis of the simplicity that walking sims value.

I wonder about the space in the middle of this triangle, an area that blends these three extremes.  A linear (?) story, expressed as traversable space, with some sort of activity structure bolted onto it.  Virginia but with escape rooms?  Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture but with puzzles and an inventory?  Would the addition of more activities to the standard walking sim structure devalue the narrative itself, or produce a more engaging result?  Is there a way to balance these competing ideas that doesn’t involve the massive investment required to build something like Until Dawn?

I don’t know the answer, but this is the type of game I’d like to try to make.  I guess you could see Dead Secret Circle as my latest attempt at finding that balance.

A Scarlet Skate

It was with considerable disillusionment that I hit my 30s and discovered that eating whatever I liked and never exercising would no longer result in a consistent weight.  Over the last decade I have switched to computing my mass in kilograms so that the increases can be represented with smaller numerical values.  My diet has improved and the force I exert on the bottoms of my shoes has stabilized, but so far I have had little luck lightening the load.  Perhaps I should not be surprised: I spend my day hunched over a computer screen.  When not hammering a keyboard I am usually driving my children to and fro along HW101, Silicon Valley’s central artery, now so congested that it will almost certainly deliver the Bay Area’s eventual cardiac arrest.

I am lucky enough to live just a few miles from work, and have often considered building some exercise into my commute.  I bought a fold up bike, which is fun to ride and has tiny little wheels, but the distance is barely sufficient to break a sweat.  I walked to work a few times, a lone pedestrian threading my way along the concrete network of avenues built only to be passed through and not lingered upon, dodging construction sites and used needles.  Once, on a weekend, my family away at some function, I rollerbladed my way to work, which was fast and exhilarating and only required a small sacrifice of pride.  The rollerblades, however, are bulky and heavy, and require a separate pair of shoes to be carried to the destination.  My commute experiments have too many demerits to deploy as a regular practice.

It was one evening, as I sat at my display (now for leisure rather than work, but in the same bowed position), deeply frustrated with my inability to burn calories reliably, that I chanced upon the Cardiff Skate S1.  This device, a marvel of modern engineering, is a skate that you strap to your regular shoes.  A contemporary version of vintage clamp-on roller skates, rendered in high quality rubber and metal, which costs $139.99.  I immediately pictured myself skating to work, popping the skates off at the door, and casually walking to my desk.  It seemed to me, in that moment, that the Cardiff Skate S1 offered the blend of exercise and convenience that would finally allow me to banish my second chin.  Amazon even had it on sale.cardiff2

I can distinctly remember a period of my youth in which every child in my town held their birthday party at the local roller rink.  It was a dark, low ceilinged building with mustard shag carpet bordering the smooth floor.  A scary old guy would sit at the counter and crack glow sticks for anyone with the guts to approach him.  A row of pinball machines hugged the back wall.  It was the definitive birthday party spot for every kid my age.  At some point the birthday party vogue shifted to a much newer (not to mention better-lit) ice rink, and I went with it.  Oregon in the mid-1980s did not have a wide variety of structured play options to offer parents.

I suppose the decrepit roller rink left an impression.  Nearly three decades later my own children are good skaters.  We get up early to play ice hockey on the weekend, we frequent the inline skating sports center near us, and our garage is now home to a variety of bladed and wheeled foot contraptions.  Somewhere, deep in the withered cellular mass that passes for my calf muscles these days, the memory of how to stay upright with wheels strapped to my feet has persisted.  I am a permanent carrier of a skill virus I picked up trying to learn how to shoot the duck under a mirror ball in the fourth grade.

Despite our family enthusiasm for the skating sports, my wife was skeptical of the Cardiff Skate S1.  First there was the question of safety: did I really want to navigate the concrete tundra that separates our home from my office with wheels strapped to my feet?  Moreover, the three-wheel triangle design of these skates failed to impress her.  “They look lame,” she told me.  She is patient with my white male engineer obliviousness to cool and never even complains about my Prius.  But there are limits, and the S1 obviously crossed the line.  I argued that the convenience of a strap-on skate was worth a tiny shame investment, and anyway I’d be moving so quickly that passers-by would see only a blur as I rocketed down the street.

The Cardiff Skate S1 box was surprisingly heavy, and indeed the skates themselves proved to be industrial strength.  I stowed them in the garage and waited for the weather, my morning meeting schedule, and my stamina to form a syzygy.

cardiff1Finally the day arrived.  I strapped the heavy metal contraptions to my shoes and tooled around the garage.  The skates took some getting used to, particularly the weird double back wheels, which make turning difficult.  But soon enough I was confidentially zig zagging across the concrete floor like an overweight nerd ballerina.  I could almost hear the opening bars of The Nutcracker.  At 8:30 AM I rolled out of the garage and into the street, pointed my toes in the direction of my office, and set off.

I decided to take the most direct route to work, which involves skating on sidewalks rather than in the street.  This proved tougher than I expected.  The large back wheels of the S1 bumped uncomfortably at each gap in the pavement, and I found it difficult to get any sort of regular momentum.  I pushed myself harder, and after a block had almost managed to reach a respectable speed when I realized that I had no idea how to break.  I fumbled to execute a half pivot, which is an easy way to slow yourself on inline skates, and nearly collided with a tree.  When I had regained my composure I remembered that the S1 has a rear break, a strange secret fourth wheel which adds friction when you lean back on your heels.  After testing this a few times I felt confident enough to continue.

It was like skating through mud.  The heavy skates refused to glide, and the only way to reach any sort of interesting speed was to concentrate every leg muscle into every push.  I had travelled only a few blocks and was already drenched in sweat.  About a mile from home blisters on the back of my heel developed and burst all at once.  Despite my discovery of the break I was barely able to keep myself upright, the skill virus in my limbs apparently incompatible with these alien foot wheelbarrows.  I became keenly aware that I was traveling along the street that nearly all my coworkers take to reach our office.  I could feel the cars slow as they passed, perhaps to stare at the logo of my employer that covers the face of my backpack.  It occurred to me that I had perhaps failed to assess the gravity of my wife’s advice.

Halfway to my goal I trundled to a stop.  I was exhausted and clung to a stop sign for support.  My feet felt like they had just returned from an unfortunate date with a weed whacker.  My face was burning, both from the excessive physical requirements of the Cardiff Skate S1 and the immense shame known only to those who suffer the consequences of their own incredibly poor decisions in public.  I had been wrong, totally and completely wrong, more wrong than I can recall having been ever before.

There was nothing for it.  I sucked in my gut, gathered up my Hawthorne shame, and started back towards home.