The Numbers – The Shrouded Isle Review

The Shrouded Isle is nothing if not contemporary. I play the leader of a cult governed by various statistics represented by little 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. The Shrouded Isle is a neat doomsday cult management sim that holds some amusing commentary on oppressive power structures and parallels to the current political climate, but in practice, metaphors like these don’t extend particularly far beneath the surface.

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. Each individual adviser also comes with both a virtue and a vice that further affects my stats to degrees of varying extremity when they’re selected – 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 its, well, shroud; 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, that’s 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.

Nathan Drake Is Crash Bandicoot: Uncharted 4 and Acceptance

(Included in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for May 14th)

Nathan Drake’s house is neat but still messy enough to look like people live there. Two floors, nice neighborhood, loving partner lounging on the couch. It’s the familiar picture of domestic bliss that writers have, for eons, used as shorthand for what chips away big chunks of your soul, like cutting an apple with a spoon. Here, Uncharted 4 includes a PlayStation with a brief Crash Bandicoot level, both as an amusing nod to Naughty Dog’s past and an interactive way to establish the dynamic between Nate and Elena as she watches him play.

But Crash is also this tragic prop. As Nate remarks, Crash performs the same runs and jumps that he did in his previous life; the furry, jort-ed mutant even runs from a boulder like Indiana Jones, Uncharted’s most obvious inspiration. These days, Nate only works salvage, a pale imitation of his former treasure hunts. His grand adventures, his life-and-death struggles against morally dubious competitors have been reduced to video game contests that determine who does the dishes. No coincidence that after he fails to beat Elena’s high score (the game is even rigged so that he can’t win, can’t even get the fleeting gratification of victory), she asks him if he’s happy.

Uncharted 4 does not actually break the fourth wall at any point, but putting a PlayStation controller in the hands of its protagonist and having him play an old Naughty Dog title is certainly tapping at the bricks, sledgehammer in hand. This isn’t hidden in a corner of Nate and Elena’s house, either – it’s a requirement to move forward. The game reaches out to the player by making Nate a player himself, who’s similarly unsatisfied with the older video games available to him and itching for a brand-new adventure. Within this context, Uncharted 4’s narrative uses the overarching theme of accepting who you are to address not only the idea of players moving on from Nathan Drake, but the long-standing critique of his sizable death toll. And one year later, as Naughty Dog is poised to make good on their promise with an upcoming spin-off that allegedly doesn’t feature Nate at all, I’m reminded why I’m happy to see them leave the character and their wishy-washy defense of him behind.

Said narrative hinges on a “one last job” setup that comes courtesy of Nate’s long-lost brother Sam, who needs help finding the equally long-lost pirate colony of Libertalia + any treasure therein. Nate believed his brother was dead and thus accidentally left him to rot in a Panamanian prison, but there’s no guilt trip necessary – Nate has stewed so long in his own discontent that he practically jumps at the chance to lie to his wife and go treasure-hunting again.

Libertalia becomes both stage and symbol for much of the resulting conflict – just as the colony let its residents escape the constraints of an ordinary (and decidedly anti-pirate) world, so too does it let Nate escape the steady job and the domestic bliss and the refrigerator with leftover Chinese food. But the fact that everyone in Libertalia killed each other casts a foreboding shadow over his escapism, one that’s only emphasized by an earlier confrontation with Elena over his lies. He tells Sam at one point, “I left my life for you,” and if the pirate skeletons are any indication, it’s not worth it. When Elena tracks Nate down again on the island, she’s less interested in getting him to admit the obvious error of his ways (though he does, and she remains rightfully peeved) than literally meeting him halfway, out on the stage of his escapist fantasy.

Although Elena intends to bring Nate home, she also admits settling down was, on their part, an overcorrection – she runs and climbs and shoots right alongside him because the escapist, adventurous streak runs in her, too, and it’s a hard thing to leave on an attic shelf with the other souvenirs. Once all the fires and explosions of the climax subside, Sam reveals that he’s snagged enough gold pirate coins to set Nate and Elena off into a different sort of retirement, which lets Elena reboot her TV show and Nate pursue a more family-friendly form of treasure-hunting. It’s the complete realization of the island and Libertalia and everything that happens there as metaphor for acceptance – by gaining something from the place signifying their restlessness and escapism, they’re able to move forward without abandoning a key part of themselves. Instead, they build on it.

In other words, the story of Nathan Drake concludes with everyone accepting that Nathan Drake pretty much is who he is. He goes on this long journey to come to terms with his own displeasure with an ordinary life and learns that it’s not something to be cured so much as accommodated. Elena and Nate reconfigure their lives because they accept their mutual need for discovery and globe-trotting. Similarly, Sam learns to accept that his brother is finished; he has a wife, a home, a life beyond crazy suicidal expeditions.

Uncharted 4’s final message for the player mirrors Nate: the person with the controller moves on, accepts the idea of no further adventures. It nudges us in the direction of being OK with the character’s retirement and with Naughty Dog’s presumed impending exit from the Uncharted business (spin-off notwithstanding). Everything wraps up smoothly, without a word for the path of third-person shooter destruction that Nate leaves in his wake on a quest to find himself. The bodies are frustratingly filed next to thrill-seeking and telling lies, as nothing that The Love of a Good Woman can’t fix.

Criticizing Uncharted’s body count is, I realize, such an old argument that the fourth game even includes a joke trophy (“ludonarrative dissonance” for killing 1000 people) poking fun at the idea. But the game’s central theme directly conflicts with that persistent argument. Involving players in a large acceptance narrative and asking them to move beyond Nathan Drake’s adventures, as its characters have, means Uncharted 4 also asks players to accept Nathan Drake’s actions. Conversely, the critique of his death toll is a matter of players outright refusing to accept those actions and demanding a better explanation, which Uncharted 4 never gives. Its trophy for 1000 kills is instead emblematic of a dismissive approach – the game only seems to contextualize its violence within the story when the spiraling mayhem of the gunfights and setpieces reflect just how out-of-control Nate’s lies to Elena become. Death, or at least death in terms of faceless video game henchmen, is little more than a broad, abstract concept used to sporadically color other themes, a parallel to how years of first-/third-person shooter conditioning have taught players to perceive video game kills.

Uncharted 4 not only maintains the status quo, it preaches acceptance of the status quo; violence is just what Uncharted is, what video games are. It does this even when some of its changes are at least adjacent to the criticism, if not a direct response. The game consciously dials back the number of enemy encounters, cutting down on the huge waves that materialize from thin air that had become an irritating series trademark. It presents nonviolent stealth as an occasional option. There are trophies for making it through certain sequences without actually killing anyone. When Uncharted 4 tweaks its approach to death, it’s only in terms of the game mechanics and not the narrative it holds so dear; Nathan Drake may kill less (and has the option to kill even fewer still) than ever before, but the game insists on separating those kills from the story, on still treating them like an abstract video game concept. Observe how, even after Nate and Elena reconcile on the island and the onscreen chaos stops broadly reflecting the chaotic state of their relationship, the death toll continues to tick upward. This pivotal shift remains exclusive to the narrative and its themes; mechanically, things stay the same.

I think back to the video game metaphor near the start of the game. Crash represents Nate in more ways than one: he’s out of date. Contrast such aimless violence with even Naughty Dog’s previous game, The Last of Us, where the body counts are similarly big but manage to fuel a pessimistic vision of the world. For what quibbles I have with The Last of Us, that game takes place in a horrifying, ugly reality, and more kills contribute to its ugliness. Uncharted, meanwhile, clings to kills as a way to occupy the player between story beats – climb a cliff, solve a puzzle, shoot a mercenary in the head with an AK-47. Not that there isn’t room for these types of stories within the broad spectrum of video games, but with all eyes on Uncharted, the poster child for both video game storytelling and how video game violence can screw with video game storytelling, its ultimate response to criticism is both disappointing and exasperating. In what may be the franchise’s final opportunity to address Nathan Drake’s violence, Uncharted 4 offers only a limp shrug: that’s the way it is, so learn to accept it.

Fade – Paper Mario: Color Splash Review

It’s tempting to say the Paper Mario series can be best-described through its title, that the crux of the whole thing is Mario as he might emerge fresh from your printer. The games themselves sure seem to believe it, as each one plays up the artificial veneer more than the next – Mario folds up into an airplane, flips between the second and third dimensions, pulls stickers. Even the newest one, Color Splash, revolves around painting.

Me, though? I look to the original game, where the aesthetic was just fuel for a couple of jokes. Observe: Mario steps out over a deep ravine to his certain death, the classic “you died, try again” theme sure to follow, only to float to the ground unharmed. He just flutters back and forth the way paper does in midair. No abilities, no stickers, just a quick gag before moving on to the thing that has, for me, always defined the series: the sense of place within its papercraft world. Paper Mario is a kind of storybook where the characters look freshly-cut from the page, and those characters inhabit a kingdom that’s built from cardboard and held together by tape and string. The greatest joke of the series is that, in spite of the way it looks, the kingdom never feels artificial. Beneath the pleasing exterior, Paper Mario is as detailed and as sharply written as any role-playing game.

Color Splash maintains the detail, the weird specificity and commitment to evoking a real sense of place, for its own world, a remote vacation spot called Prism Island. It captures the essence of the series in that world and in the characters who inhabit it, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that it doesn’t succeed at much of anything else.

The occasion for Mario and Princess Peach’s arrival on the island is the pretty gnarly fate that’s befallen a Toad: he’s been drained of color until he’s just the lifeless white outline of a little mushroom person, folded up into an envelope, and mailed to the princess with a postmark from Prism Island, sort of like one of those movies where they lop off a finger and stick it in an envelope to show they mean business. The rest isn’t really important. It’s Bowser. He’s drained some color from the island, stolen some stuff. Mario and his new partner, a flying, sentient paint can called Huey, are unamused.

The story is barebones, as an extension of how successfully Color Splash hones in on the strengths of the series. The stories have never been bad, but they are rarely much more than an excuse to string together visits to new places and meetings with new characters – recognizing this, Color Splash sets you on your way with impressive speed, leaving the thin story as a vehicle for jokes, sarcastic observations, bad puns, and character interactions in general to lend the world texture. The characters themselves are even made largely identical to (perhaps unnecessarily) remove any distraction from the text; a Shy Guy in the midst of an existential crisis has no distinguishing features whatsoever, and a Toad who conceals his nudity in the bushes while calling himself the superhero Justice Toad looks more-or-less like everyone else on an island chiefly inhabited by Toads (public indecency aside).

Despite the speed with which it begins, the game never seems rushed or impatient. As I hurried between characters and locations, I got the impression that it wasn’t for lack of things to see so much as the sheer volume of sights to take in – Color Splash simply wants to squeeze as much as possible into its island tour. The train repair depot at the eastern edge of the island suggests life through its own emptiness, so devoid of work that the crewmen just twiddle thumbs as the crusty old foreman lounges, scowling and muttering about his approaching retirement, in his chair at the center of the place like he hasn’t even moved since the last job. A power plant is little more than a tiny shack in the woods with cables that wind all the way up to the lightning rod planted atop a small tower. Other places: a fossil dig site, a naval base, a beach festival, various tourist traps. By offering many small locations, Color Splash gives us more looks around Prism Island, more opportunities to get to know the place. It is as well-drawn as any game in the series.

A shame, then, that exploring the place is so often broken up by an ill-conceived battle system. The fights in Color Splash are turn-based, taking many of their cues from the previous game, Sticker Star, where attacks are disposable commodities. Mario fights every bad guy with a deck of cards that is so slow to use that it kills the game’s rhythm. Every jump on an enemy’s head, every whack with a hammer, every invocation of the fire flower is determined by a single-use card that Mario finds in the field or wins from a battle or buys in a shop. Upon bumping into an enemy, Color Splash drags you to the battle screen, where you’re supposed to thumb through an increasingly large deck of cards on the Wii U gamepad that a well-intentioned (but mostly useless) auto-sort button cannot salvage. The act of playing, say, a jump card involves not only finding the card in question, but dragging the card to the top of the screen, holding down on the card to fill it up with paint, hitting the “Cards Ready” button, swiping upwards on the touchscreen to play the cards, and then pressing the buttons in sync when Mario finally, finally makes his move.

There are a good number of pre-colored cards as well as an option to remove the “Cards Ready” step (which is never mentioned in the game and feels a little like someone offering to carry a single one of your 12 grocery bags while still leaving you to unlock and open the door to your apartment), but neither successfully relieve the system’s tedium. Somehow worse is the lack of reward – you lose cards every time you fight, and winning mostly just replaces what you lose by awarding more cards (which could be fewer cards than what you just played or inferior cards or both) and coins with which to buy more cards. The cornerstone of any RPG is the experience you gain in battle to level up your character(s), and Color Splash’s (rather poor) substitutes are the incremental upgrades to Mario’s paint reserve. Because the interface is heavily simplified to rely on numbers as little as possible, you get only this vague spatial idea of how much it takes to fill in a card. Your paint reserves, however, are represented by an actual number, which makes the upgrades a fundamentally useless statistic; it’s impossible to gauge the difference between 350 paint and 300 paint and thus impossible to impart the necessary sense of tangible progress.

If it’s not apparent by now, I lost any real incentive to fight anything after just a few hours. I started to avoid every enemy I saw, walking in zigzags and circles as I waited for just the right moment to slip by. The same frustrating lack of reward for victory meant I suffered no real consequences for ducking the bad guys, but it also meant that every fight I couldn’t avoid felt like punishment. Even if I stubbornly mashed the “Flee” button each turn rather than play (and subsequently lose) my cards, the game’s chance-based escape conditions sometimes meant I lost a chunk of health for my trouble. And even if I made it out unscathed, the whole process took just enough time to really get on my nerves. Long before the halfway point, playing Color Splash became some obnoxious game of tag where everyone else was always It.

The best parts of Color Splash feel like they sand the series down to a particularly efficient joke delivery machine, spitting out witty lines and creative situations in the way a good adventure game does. And maybe the game would have been better off that way, after beefing up a few of its rudimentary puzzles, because the battle system is such a massive obstruction to the strengths of the series that they hardly seem to matter. How good is the world of Prism Island, really, if I’m dragged into battle so often that I don’t have much patience left to enjoy it? What do I care about these characters and what they have to say if it’s such a chore getting to them? The battle system is a bizarre, horrible miscalculation that’s simplistic one moment and convoluted the next. The times that Color Splash seems to really understand Paper Mario, when it really gets what this series is, become footnotes to a greater whole that still can’t remember.

Outgrowing the Cage: Max Payne 3 and Raised Expectations

When I play Max Payne 3, I guide its title character from one shootout to the next on a private security gig gone bad. The rhythms grow familiar: gun barrels will explode from all corners of a room, bullet casings will skitter across the ground, breathing bodies will become corpses. The constant chaos measures itself against clear cinematic aspirations (think John Woo by way of Tony Scott and Michael Mann), and it only stops when the game more overtly indulges through cutscenes of its own. They’re mostly what you’d expect: Max giving a self-loathing internal monologue, Max interacting with another character, somebody otherwise setting up the next scene. Often, Max waves his gun around, and whenever he does this, he always uses his sidearm (typically a pistol). Always.

But I don’t always play through Max’s frequent gunfights with a pistol. They’re the obvious weapon of choice for a game with a designated dive-through-the-air-in-slow-motion button, but I use other guns as I encounter them: shotguns, assault rifles, whatever. Although this kind of hiccup separating characters as they appear in cutscenes from characters as I control them is not unique to Max Payne 3, the game takes it a step beyond most. If, for example, I clear a room with my shotgun and a cutscene plays where Max brandishes his pistol, he will remain holding that pistol when the cutscene ends. It’s a peculiar, somewhat irritating effect, and it sums up all my weird, conflicted feelings about Max Payne 3, about how its technical improvements alter my expectations.

I grant that all this sounds like a nitpick, but the Max Payne series has always emphasized the player’s control. Its central mechanic of slow motion provides a filmmaker’s input to its elaborate action movie homage – as in most third-person shooters, I am both actor and cameraman, but with access to slo-mo effects, I become a director of sorts. At my discretion, the simple act of stepping around the corner to blast a goon full of buckshot can be injected with dramatic weight by a press of the slo-mo button. It is a whole new dimension of control over the flow of the action, and the effect is powerful even in the two previous Max Payne games, with their blocky character models and awkward movements. Those games may portray Max with an eerily square head and a goofy sneer etched into an unchanging face, but one dive through the air and I feel like Chow Yun-Fat and Neo rolled up in one pill-popping, sardonic, trenchcoated wrapper.

Max Payne 3 appears to extend player control even further by complicating both the character you control and the world he interacts with. Max’s craggy face looks as haunted and tired as his weary narration sounds, and he moves with a heft that accentuates the beefy, middle-aged frame he squeezes into rumpled suits and loud floral shirts. He seems to lack all the restrictions of previous games, which used comic book panels instead of animated cutscenes to neatly sidestep the obvious limits of stiff, rudimentary character models. Now the comics are all but gone, referenced only during loading screens, and Max clasps an assault rifle in his off hand instead of levitating it a few inches above his back like so many other shooters. To recover health, he produces a little orange pill bottle from the folds of his jacket whenever I press a button.

Of course, in terms of player control, I’m not actually doing more here – the only change to the health system from previous games is the addition of that pill-popping animation. But that’s the thing: I know these technical embellishments are just a well-orchestrated illusion, and yet they still work. On a pure presentation level, it just feels good for Max to hold a shotgun in his other hand like that and then tuck it under his elbow when he reloads. Really, it’s simple math: give me more small details and character animations to control, even at such a minimum level of engagement, and it fortifies the illusion. I get more invested because it truly feels like I have more control over Max and his world than I ever did before.

The problem with something like Max switching to his pistol is that it jolts me out of the illusion. It’s meant to be another detail that engrosses me, removing one of those video game-y little blips where the character’s weapon instantly changes, like magic. Instead, the pistol swap only emphasizes my lack of control, like an awkward silence drawing attention to the thing you want to avoid. It underscores how I’m reliant on the game to perform such actions for me, and being so reliant not only feels at odds with the visual illusion Max Payne 3 invests so much to construct, it conflicts with the uncommon level of control it affords me.

I have no real desire for some BioWare-esque dialogue wheel, or to be able to choose which location I visit next. But something as simple as choosing a gun and pointing it? I can handle that. In fact, I do handle that during almost every playable second of the game. Though it came out nearly four years ago, Max Payne 3’s detailed characters still feel incredibly modern, its approach to gunplay still fresh. But these things also create control expectations that the game can’t quite meet. Every time it guides me with a helping hand like any other shooter (or most other video games, for that matter), it feels intrusive. It feels like a refusal to let me do what I’ve been led to believe I’m capable of, or should be capable of. Throughout the game, Max will do things like tackle someone through a club window or use a toppling water tower as cover or swing from a chain, which will trigger a kind of mid-air shooting gallery (using a pistol, of course) as he plummets to the ground. But I can’t set these moments off on my own; the game only allows them through cutscenes.

I know why, of course. The development headache of letting Max tip over water towers at will is surely enormous, so I recognize that on some level, these expectations are, at best, a little unfair or, at worst, wildly entitled and outright delusional. However, the nature of controlling such a vividly-rendered protagonist is also to expect a greater role in the proceedings, and I can’t help but come away unfulfilled. In a modern gaming context, where technology is even more powerful and the resulting illusions even more elaborate, Max Payne 3 emerges as a cautionary tale of sorts, demonstrating the odd dissonance that results from taking the protagonist so far; he is the animal that outgrows the cage. Max feels too capable in my hands to be taken out of them as often as he is.