Pathologic 2 EGM Interviews


I basically do not use this site anymore except as some kind of big, unwieldy archive (which hopefully I’ll fix at some point), but I wanted to at least post this one for posterity. Interviews are, I’ve discovered, extremely hard. Writing an essay with interviews on a game dense enough to wrangle a whole book out of is even harder. So I’m proud of this one! It’s the most complicated thing I’ve yet worked on.

That’s it, really. I interviewed some of the folks who worked on Pathologic 2 and peppered a big treatise on why the game is brilliant around their quotes. Ivan and Alexandra gave wonderful, insightful answers and I’m grateful they were so generous with their time. I wish I could have fit in everything they told me (though I did my best), and I’m excited for whatever they go on to make.

A Russian Crucible: Pathologic 2 and the Problem of Video Game Difficulty


A Coda: Uncharted, the Crate Joke, and Rejecting the Drake Legacy

uncharted lost legacy 1

[Spoilers, by the way]

After four main entries, the hallmarks of the Uncharted series are easy to spot. Handholds will crumble, jokes will be cracked, guys with guns will arrive in waves that last just a little bit too long. It’s a series prone to the bombast of the action/adventure stories it emulates, but also a series with a legitimate interest in its characters — in what they care about, in how they interact, in what their lives might be like outside vehicles for gunplay. In particular, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End uses heavy symbolism to mirror protagonist Nathan Drake’s journey to find himself, to accept who he is/was/will be. I wrote about this in the lead-up to the current spin-off, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and I noted that its uncritical acceptance narrative fails to examine the longstanding critique of the franchise’s violence, despite concessions elsewhere. For as thoughtful as Uncharted can be about its characters, it has never been all that thoughtful about the violence they perpetrate. Until the latest game, it has been an immobile mainstay of developer Naughty Dog’s action pastiche.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is better at scrutinizing its protagonists than any prior game in the series. But you do wonder how much of that relates to who’s doing the shooting; its starring Indian woman and black South African woman (both portrayed by white women) own up to their actions more than noted straight white dude Nathan Drake ever had to own. This, you or I might say, is our double standard for the marginalized. We do not allow women — particularly women of color — to hold the positions men do without calling their presence there into question. Those positions include, apparently, the treasure-hunting, devil-may-caring harbingers of chaos who headline our video games.

The messy politics of the game’s casting and the context of its story ensure that any self-reflection remains, to say the least, imperfect. But in that self-reflection, The Lost Legacy at least makes some strides to finally confront criticism that Uncharted has ducked for years. It finds in Nate’s old associate Chloe Frazer a fresh POV that either lacks his moral failings or comes to shed them over the course of the game. Things start out as usual: Chloe teams with 4’s secondary antagonist Nadine Ross to find an ancient Indian relic called the Tusk of Ganesh, in which the pair have personal and financial stakes. Chloe’s father died in his obsessive search for the relic, while Nadine — recently ousted as leader of her private military company Shoreline — needs the cash to take back her father’s company. There is, of course, a villain in the rebel Asav who supplies the bad guys to be shot, and they are shot in large numbers with largely the same indifference + flimsy self-defense that defines so many video game shooters, the very same video game-y abstraction that Uncharted and Naughty Dog otherwise reject.

The game begins with Chloe sneaking through an Indian warzone. This contested part of the city is full of precarious rooftops and crumbling ledges, as well as armed guards involved in what she says is “not my fight.” The turmoil is only an obstacle on the way to a quite separate goal. But near the end of the story, Asav sells the Tusk for a bomb that he sends on a train bound for the city. Chloe and Nadine recover the Tusk from his buyers (Shoreline, in fact) and then, in the game’s most dangerous and involved setpiece, Chloe risks her life to stop the bomb. With their feet dangling over the ravine they drove the train into, Nadine announces that she’s done with Shoreline. And Chloe, for her part, makes a decision that Nathan Drake never would have: to give the Tusk to India’s Ministry of Culture.

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We can understand the game’s title in terms of how Chloe and Nadine handle the legacy of their fathers with Shoreline and the Tusk of Ganesh, but we can also understand it in franchise terms: the legacy of the Uncharted series. As their mechanical forefather, Nathan Drake sits in a similar patriarchal role that the women eventually come to reject, abandoning personal gain and the incidental violence that has come with their pursuit of it. Chloe does this most obviously with her decision to donate the Tusk, but Nadine does, too; when she gives up the struggle for her PMC, she gives up the for-profit violence that comprised the legacy of her father as well so much of the entire Uncharted series. At one point, she clarifies that she wanted Shoreline back out of pride, because losing it happened “on her watch” — in giving it up, she rejects legacy for legacy’s sake.

The game reflects this critique of legacy not just in its POV shift and its experimentation with open world structure, but in its treatment of the Drake mentality. Chloe and Nadine’s third partner is late-game arrival Sam Drake, who functions as a Nate stand-in by carrying on the lifestyle his brother left behind. Though he also risks his life to stop the train, he at first voices Chloe’s prior philosophy, of the bomb not being their problem; it’s an obstacle no longer in their path. To position the Drake mentality as something to be left behind, The Lost Legacy turns the brothers into something of a running joke. Nadine and Chloe share an amusing conversation about how irritating they found Nate, and although Sam’s resurgence drives a serious adversarial wedge between the two thanks to his run-in with Nadine in the fourth game, their group dynamic soon flattens into a similar comedic routine. The elder Drake is all but carried through The Lost Legacy; he needs to be rescued from Asav, and he mooches off Chloe and Nadine for their grappling hooks. He even begs them to reconsider donating the Tusk all the way into a mid-credits scene.

The game’s clearest rejection of the Drake approach is actually a brief joke about crates. In keeping with his newfound comic shittiness, Sam is also the lone purveyor of Uncharted 4’s most dreaded mechanic: pushing crates around to reach high places (and presumably mask load times or something). The game references this inane activity with an early crate cameo, as Chloe sends one off a rooftop and crashing through the floor occupied until moments ago by Nadine. “No more crates,” Nadine says, and true to her word, they never use one for hours and hours of play until Sam cheerfully shoves one down from a ledge to not only cement his status as a joke character but tie his methods to something the women have moved beyond.

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The Lost Legacy is tied together through snippets of a Hindu myth. Ganesh loses his tusk when confronted by Parashurama, who wields an axe received from Shiva. Though Ganesh can stop the axe, he allows himself to be cut out of respect for Shiva, his father. As an allegory for the events of the game, it’s a bit muddled since it only reflects Chloe’s relationship with her father while ignoring Nadine, but it does temper the game’s critique of the series — out of similar deference to what came before, The Lost Legacy does not entirely jettison the traditional Uncharted format. Chloe does not, after all, give up hunting for treasure or using the accompanying action hero skillset. Instead, she abandons the narcissistic approach while making peace with her father’s wishes. In this, the game contends that some legacies are worth continuing. Others, however, are better off lost.

Some Further Reflection: Chuchel, Blackface, and the Ease of Silence

NOTE: As of late December 2018, Amanita Design have elected to re-color Chuchel in order to avoid any blackface associations. I’m all for the change, though the question does remain of whether his entire characterization emerged from the stereotype, and whether changing it does what Cole argues Cuphead does: remove the overtly offensive imagery but fail to reckon with the traces it leaves behind. I’ve left this essay up not only because I believe that’s still worth considering, but because my own mistake remains, regardless of whether the work you can go out and buy is different now.

The character Chuchel is named after a Czech word for a ball of hair and dust, and he is described as an amalgamation of the game’s lead designer and his dog. Chuchel is also a minstrel. In tandem with his bulging white eyes and his crooked teeth set in prominent red-orange lips, his soot-black dustball body suggests a familiar racial caricature. His design stands in uncomfortable proximity to the blackface designs of such objects of controversy as the Pokémon Jinx, Dragon Ball’s Mr. Popo, that laser meme, and most significantly a wide array of American cartoons that took direct inspiration from the minstrel shows of our all-too-recent past, using familiar racism to generate laughs.

Yussef Cole has written about this racist history in relation to Cuphead for Unwinnable, arguing that although the game attempted to scrub blackface imagery from the Fleischer cartoons that inspired it, it still retained a number of racist tropes related to things like gambling and jazz. Citing Nicholas Sammond’s study Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, Cole traces the lineage of Cuphead’s protagonists to “early cartoon characters [who] were tricksters, layabouts, and thieves, archetypes born from the depiction of the lazy slaves minstrel shows specialized in.”

Chuchel clearly does not make as much of an effort to “clean up” as Cuphead does, and its inspirations are a little more ambiguous than that game. But even so, developers Amanita Design note classic comedy archetypes and short animated films as their inspiration, and it’s easy to picture the through-line—Chuchel is introduced to us as a lazy character, shutting off an increasingly elaborate series of loud alarms to avoid waking up in the morning. From there, he behaves as a chaotic nuisance, disrupting the world around him while in single-minded, mischievous pursuit of fruit (although the cherry in question seems to belong to him, the continuous process of trying to take it back from other creatures stands quite close to the thief archetype Cole describes). The unintelligible shrieks with which he communicates fit within Amanita’s dialogue-free work, but in this context his speech pattern seems to feed the characterization of the dull-witted, comical fool they have designed to be the butt of various slapstick jokes that would feel at home in a Looney Tune.

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There will undoubtedly be some question of intent when it comes to Chuchel and the Czech developers who created him. You can, for example, imagine that Chuchel, who shares the same lips and eyes with many other creatures in the game, is colored as he is for contrast. If he was instead colored gray, he would not be so distinct from the sparse background and the colorful critters around him. But while this may be a worthwhile distinction for how we look at Amanita, the creation is the creation; what coloring Chuchel this way does most of all is put blackface on an outlier, an outsider, an other.

The game’s comedy has racist overtones regardless of intent because racism has never needed to be intentional; for Vulture, Lauren Michele Jackson (also referencing Sammond) notes that the familiar gloves on characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse have minstrel roots as “Jump Jim Crow attire,” but “as time went on, audiences read them as cartoons above minstrels.” We may no longer perceive details like these in relation to their original context, but that history does not go away; Amanita draws from classic comedy for Chuchel’s behavior and particularly his character design, and in doing so they replicate racist tropes, unintentionally or perhaps even intentionally. Within the text of the game, these tropes go unrecognized and as such they are not built into anything positive, as Jackson argues the grotesquerie of modern cartoons does and as Cole argues that Cuphead failed to do.


In my review for Slant Magazine, I commented on the similarities between Chuchel’s setup and the Chuck Jones cartoon “Duck Amuck”, comparing the character to Daffy Duck. I made this comparison as a positive, and I went on to award the game four stars, which translates to a big 80 on various review aggregators that’s going to be up there pretty much forever. I wish I could say that I only recognized the problems with Chuchel after the fact, after the piece was on the site and the scores were posted to review aggregators and it was too late for me to do anything about it, but that isn’t the truth. Though some reflection after seeing concerns voiced on Twitter spurred me to write this thing you’re reading now, the truth is that they were not new to me. They lingered in the back of my mind as I played through the game for review, but I failed to voice them with the platform I was given. I’m going to talk about why, not as an excuse for my failure but because I think it’s useful to understand what can lead to silence so that, hopefully, similar mistakes won’t be made.

It was my idea to review Chuchel. I requested that we cover it, because I failed to notice anything wrong with the trailer, and I continued not noticing until about halfway through the game proper. As you might see from the articles above, there’s a solid basis for these concerns, but even then I wasn’t entirely sure. The general silence about the game gave me pause, and so did Chuchel’s nonhuman appearance (an entirely meaningless distinction that in no way precludes racism, as all those old cartoons starring animals will attest; it was bad reasoning, and I should’ve known better). I’ve written about mental health and Asian representation before, but on those, I felt 100%. On this, I didn’t. Some segments of the Internet, particularly in the games community, are actively hostile toward the discussion of social issues, which provides even further incentive for arguments like these to be airtight. There can be no reason to discount the argument from within the text, because calling something out in error can harm the discussion around these issues. In short, I was afraid.

In an attempt to alleviate those fears, I asked more than ten people to watch trailers and look at screenshots, and none of them shared my concerns. Some acknowledged that they could see where I was coming from to a point, though they expressed some skepticism since they noted it wasn’t a conclusion they’d have come to on their own. Others didn’t see it at all. I could have probed further, asking my editor or others on Twitter. I did not.

I don’t mention that I consulted people to dump my responsibility at their feet, but to show another of the excuses I used. There was Chuchel’s nonhuman appearance, there was my own nagging uncertainty plus knowledge of the stakes, and there was this, the fact that no one else saw it, which might be the worst excuse of the three. The job of a critic is not to feed a consensus. If everyone can already see everything that’s of valid concern, that defeats the critic’s entire purpose of suggesting new perspectives. As a Vietnamese-American, as a second-gen immigrant, as someone dealing with mental illness, I write because I think these perspectives have value against the consensus; if I don’t stick to these perspectives and those convictions, what am I doing here?

I chose to set my concerns aside, and I believe that was the more enticing choice because it’s easier. It is easier to say nothing, to let things continue as usual, when it is your privilege to do so because you are not the one specifically at risk. It is easier to decide that I’m overreacting to a game I otherwise enjoyed up to that point and decide it’s nothing; if I do that, I can continue enjoying it and not have to reckon with my failure to see what was right in front of me, not have to decide how many stars should be taken off for racism, not have to worry whether the review will become ammunition lobbed at others discussing these issues with more nuance than me. The fact that I chose what saved me the headache is not a coincidence; silence comes not only from the failure to recognize such issues, but the eagerness to accept that there’s nothing that needs to be said so that we may remain complacent.

I’m continuing to link to the review because I don’t want to erase that perspective. I do, however, want to give it some badly-needed context. The praise I gave Chuchel was something I believed, but I believed those things because I allowed myself to ignore the history and see only a cartoon instead of the reprehensible tradition it emerges from. I wish I had acknowledged those concerns with the platform I was given, and I can’t apologize enough for my failure to do so; I want to learn from my mistake here, and I hope others can, too.

The Next Generation – Shin Godzilla Review

Shin Godzilla is a satire of Japanese bureaucracy and a nationalistic underdog story about politicians uniting in the face of disaster, which sounds terrible. It sounds very people-centric, and nobody goes into a Godzilla movie for the people. People aren’t much more than a necessary evil to string together what would otherwise be an incoherent jumble of guys in monster costumes throwing punches at each other and stumbling over miniatures – you need people to engineer a semi-coherent story with things like pacing and build-up, though you also need them to hurry up and get out of the way for said sequences of rampaging monsters.

But Shin Godzilla is fascinating because it’s so people-centric. Its politicians are woefully underprepared for the appearance of a giant monster and, it would seem, any disaster whatsoever. Undoubtedly informed by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake + tsunami +nuclear disaster combo, directors Hideaki Anno (who wrote the screenplay and is best-known for anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi present a government stumbling through red tape with all the success of someone who wanders off into the jungle without their machete. They call committees. They call sub-committees. They meet in one room and adjourn to meet in another room and then adjourn again to return to the first room, surrounded by an excessive, omni-present swirl of names and job titles. It’s an energetic effect, with dynamic camera angles and quick cuts and breathless back-and-forths amid subtitles comically plastered over different parts of the screen to create a fussy sort of chaos – there are lives at stake, but so is status and decorum. When civilians in one scene stumble into the military’s imminent response to Godzilla, multiple departments panic – without guidelines to follow, with careful planning now disrupted, there can be only anarchy because those guidelines are what rule rather than decisive action.

Eventually, an awesome mid-film display of Godzilla’s destructive power kills the highest-level politicans and paves the wave for ambitious young Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Freed from superiors holding him back out of self-preservation, he takes charge of a special Godzilla response committee composed of “lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics, and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy.” They’re outsiders (though still pretty attractive ones) positioned as the next generation, as the only ones capable of getting things done. Shin Godzilla presents the old guard as incompetent and unequipped to confront potential catastrophe, yet the only thing to humble them and push them aside is death itself. It’s this sort of pessimism that makes the film’s silly nationalism, which comes complete with a proud “look at us” speech and an upbeat guitar-driven teamwork montage, go down easier than it might have otherwise – it’s less a mindless celebration of what is than an angry indictment of an ineffectual bureaucracy that obstructs what could be.

Still, the onset of that nationalism shifts the film’s focus from satire to a more standard mystery of how to take down Godzilla. Without public officials to skewer, some of the life drains from Shin Godzilla as it steps into well-executed routine: the triumph of the human/Japanese spirit. Solving Japan’s Godzilla problem in competent, united fashion just doesn’t compare to that initial ping-pong between bureaucratic incompetence and traditional Godzilla destruction, which dries up around the same point. And that’s a shame, because the film offers one of the most novel takes on the towering monster that the series has seen. This time, he evolves, first from a goofy, bug-eyed creature that can’t support its own weight to stand upright and eventually into what could be his most terrifying incarnation with a beady, inhuman eye, spindly arms, a tail like a humongous tentacle, and thin, crooked teeth. Toho promised their new Godzilla would be his biggest incarnation ever, and yet Anno and Higuchi never revel in excess, in burying the audience’s vision with debris and explosions and death. Perhaps that’s due to budget constraints, but there’s a purpose here, a willingness to let the big moments be big instead of trying to mold the film into a constant spectacle.

When I saw Shin Godzilla in theaters, I didn’t expect a franchise going 31 strong to stage its perfunctory destruction with such skill and energy. I didn’t expect it to evoke the work of Aaron Sorkin or Dr. Strangelove. However, what I saw in the theater hasn’t quite translated to Funimation’s disc release, which cuts the Japanese text for character names/job titles and thus cuts a huge part of the film’s comedy. In the theater, the text cluttered an already busy film by layering subtitled dialogue at the bottom upon Japanese titles in the middle of the frame upon the translation of those titles at the top. Cutting the titles so their English translations may sit comfortably out of frame loses the point – they’re supposed to be intrusive and obnoxious, causing visual chaos by reflecting the government’s obsession with status while commenting on how inane that obsession is. Their removal is indefensible.

Their removal is also, in a twisted sense, consistent with being a Godzilla film. The history of these movies in America is for them to be altered in some way, sometimes significantly. Everybody knows this. After all, the West’s prevailing mental image of Godzilla is, apart from the monster himself, that the weird, halting voices don’t match the Japanese lips they emerge from. This version of Shin Godzilla, the most refreshing kaiju movie in years, does not cut any scenes or alter any dialogue or insert any footage of Raymond Burr, but once again, in the adaptive process, something has been lost.

The more things change.

The Numbers – The Shrouded Isle Review

The Shrouded Isle is nothing if not contemporary, casting me as leader of a cult governed by the various little stat bars across the bottom of my computer screen – I keep them obedient, I keep them ignorant, I keep them religiously zealous, etc. I have advisers who often turn out to be poorly-qualified, and my cabinet is a bit of a revolving door because I get rid of one every few months. That this isn’t the White House and that I fire people by sacrificing them to the demon god Chernobog are minor details.

A game goes like this: to get Chernobog to rise again and liberate us all from mortal torment, I need to survive three years while managing the populace with those stats I mentioned earlier: ignorance, religious fervor, discipline, penitence, and obedience. Though I exercise total dominance as the unseen leader and designated clicker of eerie, monochrome, Game Boy-esque menu screens, these attributes are enforced by five families. Each season, I choose an adviser from each family to carry out their ancestral duties like burning books (which increases ignorance) or investigating heresy (which bumps obedience), and at the end of every season I sacrifice a chosen adviser to the void.

The Shrouded Isle is complicated, as all things are, by the human element. I, the all-seeing prophet of our lord Chernobog, know exactly how to lead my followers into glorious Armageddon, but the trouble is getting them to do my bidding with any sort of efficiency. I can only select up to three of my five advisers each month (three months to a season), and the families will grow happy or unhappy with me depending on whether I select them to perform their sacred duty. If I let them get too unhappy (or if one of my governing stats sinks too low), the game will end because the villagers will grab their torches and pitchforks. Furthermore, each individual adviser also comes with both a virtue and a vice that affects my stats to degrees of varying extremity when I use them – charisma, for example, is a minor virtue that will give a slight bump to my fervor, and being an artist is a mortal sin that will absolutely tank my ignorance.

The dilemma: vices and virtues are a mystery, revealed only by either choosing the adviser in question each month (which is governed by chance) or by asking their family to make an inquiry (which is guaranteed to work but unavailable if the family is unhappy with their dear leader). From there, it’s numbers. How many advisers I choose affects how strongly they shake up the statistics – while I’d get bigger numbers to both village stats and family disposition if I choose only Andrei Efferson to whip the unfaithful for penitence, I’ll get a more balanced spread if I choose two or three advisers (plus more chances to reveal vices/virtues). And if I manage to uncover that Andrei is an artist, his family will be slightly less upset with me if I select him as the lucky end-of-season sacrifice – creating art, after all, is a mortal sin.

It’s a clever system that forces you to juggle enough different values to prevent easy decisions without overwhelming you with numbers. And as morbid as the whole process sounds, it’s abstracted enough through menus and expressionless character portraits and flavor text to distance you from a pesky conscience – you see them less as people than the numbers they contribute to. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that The Shrouded Isle has abstracted and streamlined things a little too much. For how well the various systems interlock, they leave little room for stories to emerge because it’s the numbers that matter above all. The flavor text never indicates Andrei tries to raise penitence any other way. He has no relationships to speak of. The process of figuring out what makes him tick is little more than a series of dice rolls. His name may pop up in a creative random event, but those come few and far between.

Andrei is less a character than, well, a number. And while this makes for an effective commentary on how people are dehumanized when they’re exploited by their leaders, it grows tedious after just a few hours. That’s not terrible for a game that originated as a short riff for a Game Jam, but The Shrouded Isle is dependent on how many permutations its systems can lead to. It lives on how many stories it can create, and it squashes so many of them before they get anywhere interesting that it loses out on further commentary. Never do you adapt to plummeting ignorance by figuring out new ways to keep people in the dark, nor do you stamp out brewing resistance by any method more complex than increasing stats. In this game, the systems by which oppression functions certainly intersect, but they never expand or adapt to keep the populace under their thumb; instead, they’re simple and crumble at the slightest protest. Rounds are short and end quickly because this largely text-based management structure affords so few possibilities, and the effect is less of managing a complex system to keep the populace in line than solving some short math and logic problems.

The Shrouded Isle doesn’t offer much more than a few hours of entertainment for its novel concept because of that simplicity, but perhaps that’s the point. Compared to the beginning, rounds grow easy and uneventful when they’re nearly over and you’ve figured out most of the vices/virtues; after all, isn’t it easier to maintain a system of oppression than to get one going in the first place? The game ends rather than allow you to adapt to plummeting stats because, compared to its lofty goals (whether that’s the return of a demonic god or just an uninterrupted, unchallenged regime), the oppressive cult mentality is thin. It’s easily toppled at the slightest hint of weakness, if people truly wish it to be. And in a grim little game based around summoning the apocalypse, a game released in the current global political climate where it’s easy to feel that we, too, are trapped under questionable rule, the ways in which its people are able to constantly wrest themselves from that regime is the most depressing thing of all.

How Hellblade reinforces myths about mental illness (+ end notes)

ZAM – Two steps forward, three steps back: how Hellblade reinforces myths about mental illness (Included + quoted in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for August 27th)

My second freelance article went up today, and I don’t have much to add this time. I was reluctant at first to come out against Hellblade because it’s so rare that any form of media even makes an attempt at a nuanced portrayal of mental illness, but because it’s been pretty much universally acclaimed for that portrayal, I felt there was more than enough room for a different take.

I guess that’s the question when it comes to criticism: when is criticism warranted? If no one was talking about Hellblade, what would be the use of offering a counterpoint? And furthermore, would that amount to just kicking a game or any piece of media while it’s down? I’ve been writing a review of The Shrouded Isle that’s not particularly positive, and though The Shrouded Isle has a decent amount of coverage, there are comparatively few reviews because it’s a much smaller sort of indie game and so I wonder what the value of my perspective is. Not many people visit this site and the game came out a little while ago, so there’s no service to a theoretical consumer that I’m performing.

I had the same concern about my review of The Silver Case. I managed to frame it as an early look at Suda51 and where he would later end up, but what if it wasn’t made by a developer who would later go on to become A Name? I’m not what you would call a positive person, but I come out from my general negativity feeling like it needs to have some direction; positive criticism can highlight, but negative criticism tends to tear down and thus requires something in front of it to tear down, or it needs to simultaneously highlight something else while it’s stomping on the rubble. So with that in mind, there’s probably value in approaching every negative analysis that way; just saying that some talked-about media is bad isn’t saying as much as I’d like. (I realize this is all probably very obvious to people who are, like, good writers but it’s new to me so you’ll excuse treating it like a profound thing).

I do think I’ve (by total accident) succeeded to a point with my Hellblade essay here. It does address what I think (and which you, imaginary readers, should also think) is a very important topic: the portrayal of mental illness. But also Hellblade is supposed to be the perfect vehicle for exploring mental illness because it’s a videogame, and yet the conventions of a traditional videogame are its undoing. So that raises the question: how do you tackle this subject in a game? Can you even do it within such a framework, or does it require a new approach that relies less on a traditional videogame structure? If nothing else, the question is out there.

Windows – The Silver Case Review

Coherence has never been Suda51’s strength, but then coherence is never the point. To play his games, or at least to play the games Goichi Suda made before his nickname became a meaningless brand aesthetic, the videogame equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino Presents, is to be enveloped in their strange worlds, their surreal journeys. I can’t tell you much about what Killer7, his greatest work, actually means, but I can tell you everything about the way it feels to stand in the middle of its weirdo narrative and its sparse, apocalyptic dreamscapes. This release of The Silver Case remasters one of his earliest games, the debut title for studio Grasshopper Manufacture. The best thing about it is that you can see where Suda’s going. He’ll get there eventually. He’s just not even close to being there yet.

Though The Silver Case is technically an adventure game because you wander environments that sporadically feature puzzles to solve, it presents itself as more of a mixed-media collage. There are the puzzles and the gridded 3-D spaces in which they reside, but also there’s the text that spills from character portraits with the volume and frequency of a visual novel. Everything plays out in windows of varying size surrounded by symbols and strings of words that flash in and out of the negative space. Sometimes the windows show the occasional anime interlude or a bit of FMV or (most often) an illustration, but never choices. My interaction with the game often borders on nonexistent outside the button I press to advance the text. The effect is both distinct and distancing – I don’t occupy The Silver Case’s world so much as see it through those windows, view it from behind the glass. I wander its fussy grids one square at a time, searching for the floating sun-burst symbols that mark either an interactive object or another person; in this game, one’s as good as the other.

That is to say, The Silver Case isn’t much of a visual showpiece for Suda. Beyond the illustrations and one chapter entirely in black and white, the character art scarcely changes; no single emotion escapes from the boxed-in neutral faces. Instead, I’m left to focus on the writing alone as delivered by the angry clacking of letters filling out a text box, the sound of a thundering typewriter that supplements Suda’s harsh, jagged dialogue. But what might have otherwise highlighted a strength of character/clarity of vision/etc. only demonstrates how difficult it is to subsist on his dialogue alone. The game’s cast is large and indistinct, composed mainly of the uniformly hard-boiled detectives in the Heinous Crimes Unit. Only two leave an impression: Kusabi, the hardest-boiled of them all whose open disdain manifests in absurd nicknames for the player like “chinchilla” and “Big Dick”, and Chizuru, who is a woman and therefore receives the bulk of the game’s sexism with lines promising the player a date as a reward or apologizing for her anger with “I was on my period.”

A side narrative, “Placebo” to the main storyline called “Transmitter”, is more successful at building character with its extended portrait of a downbeat journalist (incidentally, it’s written by Masahi Ooka and Sako Kato and not Suda at all). In addition to telling its own parallel story, Placebo serves as a kind of explainer to the more obtuse Transmitter, an interconnected series of cases concerning (sometimes loosely) the escaped serial killer Kamui Uehara. The Silver Case is a procedural of sorts, not quite in the sputtering adequacy of the CBS tradition but closer than you might expect. I’ve said little of the narrative up to this point, partially because the different stories in each case are tough to condense into one singular thread outside the Kamui connection. The other reason is that it’s all pretty much bonkers. Even in the true depths of its incoherence, however, I only occasionally glimpse Suda’s odd brand of inspiration, with a guy who predicts the future through the pain in his wisdom teeth or Kamui’s murder weapon, a “customized harpoon gun” (there is no elaboration and it actually makes less sense in context), or one deaf character’s preposterous, convoluted, and successful scheme to fake perfectly functional hearing. Mostly, Suda plays it straight. Many of the cases unfold conventionally, and the ones that don’t still feel conventional when their gestures toward the futuristic or the unorthodox disappear into the void left by the absence of a strong visual component or writing that evokes any sense of place.

I see occasional brilliance in The Silver Case. It’s in a tense chase through the woods in the black of night, where allies disappear into the darkness as their radar blips go dead. It’s in the sudden, unsettling appearance of a human shadow on the tile floor that compels you to look up, a creepy moment that only works half as well as it does because of the game world’s otherwise ruinous scarcity, because this is the first time you’ll ever see a human represented in the 3-D space. It’s in the way it de-personalizes the player, incorporating your avatar’s videogame-y silence by writing you as an emotionally traumatized creep, by referring to you more often by Kusabi’s nicknames than whatever character name you chose before the game reveals itself to be about identity all along. It questions how we perceive information, how it travels and affects our view of people and cities and countries, how it’s gathered by the journalist character in Placebo.

What The Silver Case doesn’t do is find something cohesive in its mess, a larger point behind the dull puzzles that otherwise bury its inspiration. You lumber from one square to the next with a tedium that’s sometimes so blatant it can’t be anything but intentional, yet this kind of joke at the player’s expense speaks to nothing in particular – as a commentary on the unexciting routine of police work, it’s lost on a crime unit too thinly-sketched to sustain any scrutiny or satire. The game’s endless text fleshes out neither its world nor its characters before spiraling into nonsense; it’s the first time Suda’s incoherence just reads like amateurism or incompetence. It would be easy, maybe, to say that The Silver Case exposes the lie of Suda51, that Goichi Suda is nothing when stripped of the artifice. Mostly, though, it plays to his later career like a shaky student film or one of those awkward TV pilots where the characters act strangely and some of them are played by different actors and no one has quite figured the plot out yet. There are fragments here, and in that regard The Silver Case can be instructive because you can imagine how they’ll later come together into something that makes sense, relatively speaking. But if I was the TV network, I’d have passed.

Prey Lets Me Be Asian (plus some lingering concerns)

PASTE MAGAZINE – Prey Lets Me Be Asian (Included + quoted in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for July 9th)

The nice folks at Paste Games let me write this piece about Prey and its approach to race, which I guess I’m super anxious about? It’s unfortunately easy to pick out some things like Ghost in the Shell that do race poorly; praise somehow seems difficult when there’s so much room for error, so much history and so many stereotypes to navigate in making the case for something positive.

What I’ve struggled with most in writing about race is how to say we need characters who are Asian without being foreigners and to not make “foreign” sound like a bad thing. Because all Asians are grouped into the Not From ‘Round Here category, I fear that emphasizing a difference may inadvertently create some division or the appearance of it, a wish to not be associated, when it’s more the frustration of being unacknowledged + unseen.

But to sidestep these problems, how do I refer to us? “Asian” or “Asian-American” are the common terms, but not everyone who deals with this is an American, and “Asian” is broad. Too broad. There are so many countries, so many people within those countries grouped under such a banner that it seems pretty much useless, especially when I want to talk about those of us who didn’t come from an Asian-dominant country. And yet because these are the terms people use and consequently how we are perceived, they’re also the easiest way to talk about the problem without going through the whole process of defining new terms that might not even be perfect, either (I certainly can’t think of any). It’s best, or at least it seems to me that it’s best, to work off what people already know, to build understanding from prior knowledge.

In putting out essays on these topics, I’m put in a position where I’m a representative, even if only four or five people read them. For this reason, I want things to be bulletproof. I need them to be. I need the right vocabulary, need no wiggle room for misunderstandings or misrepresentation because this shit is important. But it’s about as open-ended as it gets, which is scary. And as someone whose face has morphed from a baby you wouldn’t mistake for white if I was dunked into a bucket of mayonnaise into something more racially ambiguous, do I even have the authority to speak on these issues anymore? To be a representative?

I guess I’ll do what I can.

Q&A – Alien: Covenant Review

Alien: Covenant takes place years after Prometheus and concerns the crew of a colonization vessel bound for deep space. After a mid-flight disaster, they head for a new destination, one that has green grass (presumably, beneath the grey-ish filter), oxygen, water, and the eponymous phallic aliens that give this film franchise its title. It’s also home to Prometheus’s returning cyborg David (Michael Fassbender), formerly a severed head but now complete with a full body and a grungy 90s haircut. The film makes Prometheus look wildly successful.

Now to be fair, I kind of liked Prometheus, but it’s been canonized as a disappointment and I have few protests. I don’t insist it’s particularly great or secretly good all along, but I do believe it manages something that Alien: Covenant does not: it makes it fun to watch people die. Prometheus is like a decent slasher movie, albeit mostly sans slasher villain. You don’t sit down to a slasher looking for empathetic characters or displays of real ingenuity or the widespread triumph of the human survival instinct; no, you go to see idiotic teenagers die in absurd, creative ways.

While it’s an admittedly deserved point of contention that nobody in Prometheus is an idiot teenager under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, everyone dies quite creatively. Within the framework of a crew tripping over a different bio-weapon every few feet, Ridley Scott has free reign to throw in giant squids and mutants and a pale, bald, musclebound humanoid alien. The movie succeeds through the sheer amount of stuff it flings at the wall; the musings about faith and the place of humanity in the universe may not stick, but the horrifying C-section sure does.

That’s not to say Alien: Covenant actually needs variety to be any good, of course – Scott and James Cameron managed OK in earlier films with only the xenomorphs (Cameron did add a xenomorph queen, though that was late in the movie). But I left the theater with this palpable xenomorph fatigue. Unavoidable, maybe, when the creatures in question are over 30 years old and have, in various forms of media, tangled with the Predator, Batman, and the cast of Mortal Kombat. The bar for a creative xenomorph kill is perhaps unfairly high, but even when you correct for the raised expectations, Alien: Covenant swings low; three characters die while they’re washing up, on two separate occasions. Let me reiterate: this movie goes for a trite shower kill not once, but twice.

The Covenant’s crew is composed of thin sketches: the one in the cowboy hat (Danny McBride), the one who evokes Ripley if you squint hard enough (Katherine Waterston), the one who believes in his lord and savior Jesus Christ (Billy Crudup). This would be forgivable, as it often is in horror movies, if they didn’t meet an untimely demise with all the excitement of their number coming up at the DMV. Barring a scene with a crane that momentarily shakes Scott out of his malaise, the act of getting got in Alien: Covenant feels perfunctory, like even the film is bored of its title creatures.

The only thing Scott seems interested in is David, who’s positioned as a sort of tragic, lonely artist. He glides through the crypt-like interior of an empty city, masking contempt behind an eerie politeness. As played by Fassbender, he’s the cracked face of perfection, unpredictable and sinister and amusingly seductive when he encounters the Covenant’s resident cyborg Walter (also Fassbender). It’s David who provides the film’s core, a statement on the nature of creativity and the relationship between a work and its maker that goes down easier than Prometheus’s dead-end philosophical pretensions but nonetheless gets swallowed up when there are faces to hug and chests to burst. David and the xenomorphs wrestle for the film’s spotlight, and the ones who get it don’t seem like the ones Scott wants to indulge.

The carrot on a stick for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe (xenoverse?) has been this promise of answers to its narrow mythos. In Prometheus, it was the question of just who that elephant-headed pilot was from the beginning of the original Alien, plus the motivation of the sinister Weyland-Utani corporation. For the sequel, it’s where, exactly, the xenomorphs come from. That answer may very well be the only takeaway from a film as mismatched and miscalculated as Alien: Covenant, but it’s an empty one, and not just because it’s dull and half-formed in order to leave room for more films. For all Prometheus’s troubles in asking the Big Questions about life, Scott uses them to smartly distance himself from Alien lore. The weakest parts of Prometheus are when it invokes the lingering questions of its universe, when it tells us the elephant-headed pilot isn’t elephant-headed after all and when it uses a xenomorph as a post-credits tease like it’s a Marvel character. By taking the other direction, Alien: Covenant ties itself up in lore whether we want it or not.

The strength of a fictional world is its scope, in how its bigness and mystery reflect the relationship we have with our own world. In giving us the answers, Alien: Covenant’s only essential contribution is the way it further flattens its universe into one that’s small, easy to explain, and as tiresome as the creatures that inhabit it.