Nathan Drake Is Crash Bandicoot: Uncharted 4 and Acceptance

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

See also (after reading this one, preferably): A Coda: Uncharted, the Crate Joke, and Rejecting the Drake Legacy

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.

Donald Trump Ruined ‘Arrival’ and All Other Alien Movies Probably

Arrival released in theaters not even a week beyond the 2016 election. It is, chronologically speaking, a post-Trump film, but it is not written as such. That’s not a criticism so much as a reality of production schedules – shooting began in mid-2015, the screenwriter turned in a draft before that, and somebody had the idea rattling around in their head even before that. If we envisioned the presidency of Donald Trump at all in mid-2015, we didn’t give it much credence, let alone construct whole films around the idea. That’s not to say Arrival is apolitical, of course. Its central conflict revolves around getting China and Russia to chill out. A group of soldiers mutiny after being radicalized by what appears to be a conservative radio show insisting that Somebody Needs to Do Something. At the start of the film, when everyone on the planet is flipping through channels in search of news about the alien landing, Amy Adams chides her mother to avoid “that other channel” because “those people are idiots.”

Because the film is informed by the current (or, at least, formerly current) political climate, the U.S. government naturally figures into the plot. They are on edge about the revelation that humans are Not Alone in the Universe, so characters must constantly reassure military and intelligence agency types that the aliens don’t mean any harm, that they won’t use such-and-such information against humanity, that the earth won’t be the epicenter of any cosmic explosions. Despite these apprehensions, the U.S. remains willing to talk to the aliens, and much of the film follows Amy Adams as she deciphers their language and develops a way to communicate.

It’s true that I can’t imagine this kind of restraint under the Trump administration, but Arrival lost me on a much more basic level than that. In sci-fi movies, we are accustomed to the U.S. government’s narrative presence, typically by one organization or another like FBI or CIA or military as representative(s) of the entire political arm of the United States – they are The Government, proper noun. Though details vary between each film’s portrayal, there is a constant: The Government is on top of things. The Government is on the scene with unmarked vans and HAZMAT suits at the mere mention of UFOs and little green men, and as viewers we are mostly OK with this. We willfully suspend our disbelief at preposterous response times and openly accept that, where aliens are concerned, all of America may as well be a white suburban neighborhood. It just makes sense.

While a single glance at the legislative process over the past few years should pretty much torpedo anyone’s faith in this weird hyper-competence and make any resulting conspiracies seem fundamentally ridiculous, we remain able to suspend our disbelief. The reason we’re able to do so is a basic faith in the government, the kind cultivated by grade school textbooks and anthropomorphic singing bills – by the people, for the people, all that stuff. Not a faith that our interests are being served necessarily, but a faith in the government’s ability to function as a semi-oiled machine at (at least) its minimum setting and thus at a basic level of competence. Regardless of in-fighting or political posturing or what have you, we believe (or want to believe) things are still humming along beneath the hood, that everything is going as planned. Sci-fi movies embellish from there, of course, but they retain this crucial basis in reality – “as planned” just so happens to include an alien cover-up.

Which all makes it very hard to watch Arrival now, at the end of March 2017. Twice Trump has been thwarted in court over absurd travel bans. Not only are the ethics of the people in his administration regarded with pretty much a perpetual question mark, but so are their most basic qualifications. We hear reports of jobs unfilled, rampant leaks, executive orders passed unread, the failed Yemen raid, the health care debacle. The list goes on. The obvious question on America’s lips: how does this administration react in your average alien movie? The Government in Arrival doesn’t even do anything that seems outside the realm of possibility, but with current political events hanging overhead, their smooth response seems absurd. It’s not a question of restraint, because let’s be honest, a Trump-led U.S. would occupy the exact spot a trigger-happy China and Russia do in this film. Instead, it’s a question of the ability to do the most basic stuff. The Government quickly arrives on the scene, sets up a perimeter, doles out information on a need-to-know-and-you-don’t-need-to-know basis; nobody gets in or out without somebody’s say-so and so on and so forth. Other countries behave likewise. It’s all just simple competence, and yet simple competence feels completely implausible.

Back in 2000, I voted for Al Gore. The fact that I did so in kindergarten because I liked the color blue should tell you how politically aware I was for the last widely-criticized presidency, so I can’t say if my reaction is unique to Donald Trump. What I do know is that observing the 2016 election has had the odd peripheral effect of dislodging a basic faith in government that movies like Arrival rely on. Fiction is a lens through which we observe reality. We distort, we twist, and we shape that reality to suit the story, but we use it as a base. And when I see The Government functioning with some level of competence, when I look through Arrival’s lens at the place where our own reality should be, I don’t see anything at all.

Inner Universe: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and Whitewashing

Note: There are open spoilers here, though they’re an open secret at this point. Plus, I think it’d be a good idea to learn about this stuff before you go about giving money to a thing that has what we’ll call a “concerning racial perspective” (and given its box office returns, you probably aren’t anyway).

Ghost in the Shell’s whitewashing controversy is pretty much the only reason we talk about it — the film seems to exist solely as an Americanized adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s Japanese classic, where we don’t discuss what it does as a distinct entity so much as what it changes and what it keeps from the original. Which seems unfair. But as a distinct entity, it’s a clunky, unremarkable, somewhat pretty action movie, and it doesn’t much present itself as a distinct entity in the first place. Though the plot is original, director Rupert Sanders recreates many of Oshii’s scenes, some of them shot-for-shot in ways that will surely look unflattering come the inevitable YouTube comparison video. The credits even roll over the anime’s iconic screeching chorus. And in this context, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi (here renamed Mira Killian) feels all the more incongruous. In spite of it all, producer Steven Paul rejects accusations of whitewashing, and he does more than reject them; he’s pretty sure that seeing the movie will clear things up for people. He told Buzzfeed News, “They’re going to be very, very happy with it when they see what we’ve actually done with it, and I don’t think anybody’s going to be disappointed.”

I am disappointed.

On an aesthetic level, you can tell a lot by each film’s differing approach. Oshii’s film carries an air of disrepair. Of grime. The cities are dirty and cramped and rusted, easy to mistake for post-apocalyptic if not for the crowds. The sun is rare, clouds not so much. You get the sense that technology spread like a virus, that the world struggled to adapt and still isn’t quite used to the idea; human minds have become data inside cybernetic/cybernetically-enhanced bodies at alarming risk of being rearranged or rewritten. Memories can be altered or swapped out entirely to reconfigure who you are, and the sad part is that you might even be happier that way.

Sanders goes for gleaming futurism, segmenting the grime off into slums that won’t obstruct a cityscape beset by neon and massive looping hologram-ads that’s tinted a clean blue-and-white-and-gray. You still see people do things like flip up the skin where their eyes should be to reveal plugs, but it lacks the environmental foreboding that makes it feel uncomfortable. In addition to the prettiness of it all, Sanders indulges in the kind of slow-motion that recalls Zack Snyder. And like Snyder,  Sanders is drawn to the surface aesthetics, to what looks cool, even if he doesn’t seem to understand the larger thrust of the cool source material— just look at how his film repeats many of Oshii’s vital questions about identity, memory, and individuality verbatim yet out-of-context and out-of-place in a breathless, standard action plot. Sort of like how kids will repeat what an adult says not because they get the full meaning but because an adult said it.

Ghost in the Shell 2017 has little to say for itself, and it has even less to say about whitewashing (though perhaps more than you’d expect). We assume that although the Major is a brain in a robot body, she probably used to look somewhat like Scarlett Johansson — after all, what would be the point of changing her? Cue the plot twist: once Hanka Robotics, the corporation that built her, turns out to be quite suspect in the way all cyberpunk corporations seem to be, the Major seeks out her true past behind Hanka’s lies. Up the stairs in a grubby apartment complex, she comes face-to-face with an older Asian woman. The woman invites her in, where next to the table where they drink tea is a room still dedicated to her missing-but-presumed-dead daughter, Motoko. Guess who the Major reminds her of.

If GITS17 poorly engages with those themes of identity + memory + individuality+ technology-run-amok, it at least brings them up. They are allowed to remain as capital-T Themes, but race can exist only as a cheap plot twist. Hanka Robotics appears to be a rather white corporation (white CEO, white scientists, white cyborgs), and yet there’s no attempt to explore what it means for them to erase Asians from public view and stick them in white bodies. Why Asians? Why make them white? What does that say about society viewing white as the default, as the most beautiful, as the higher standard of humanity that being a powerful cyborg implies? The film isn’t interested in these questions — it’s only interested in mining race at a surface level to get a gasp out of the audience and underscore just how different the Major used to be. After all, what’s could be more different than someone whose skin is a different color? Asians are not good enough to headline GITS17 or make up its central Theme; they’re only useful as fodder for a plot twist.

Worse, the film exploits this fact that Asians and other minorities are viewed as the Other, the very engine by which they are deemed unrelatable to a white audience and thus unfit to lead a prospective Hollywood blockbuster like Ghost in the Shell, without even involving Asians in the process. As an Asian-American, I wanted to support GITS17 because, though I disagreed with Scarlett Johansson’s casting, the film had Asian actors in other roles — Kaori Momoi as Motoko’s mother, Chin Han as Togusa, Yutaka Izumihara as Saito, the great Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki. That’s a lot of Asians for Hollywood. Turns out, they’re peripheral at best; the key players, the Major and Kuze and Batou and Dr. Ouelet and Cutter, are all white (Aramaki makes out okay but he’s noticeably fifth or sixth banana here in terms of importance, if not screentime). Chin Han gets like three scenes. Saito has one line, and before he gave it I thought they left him out of the movie. And the film even goes out of its way to obscure the faces of the Asian actors cast to play Major and Kuze (who underwent a similar process) before they were abducted and stuffed inside white people. The decision is meant to show they’re not the same people they used to be, but in practice it only further marginalizes the Asians cast in the film; they are a race, not faces.

There’s a scene at the end of the movie where the Major stands on a rooftop, giving her superhero-esque epilogue monologue about how she’s accepted who she is, as some weird amalgam of Motoko Kusanagi (her name as an Asian) and Mira Killian that’s now just “Major.” This after a scene where she stands over the gravestone of Motoko Kusanagi and walks over to her mother, tells her “you don’t have to come here anymore.” For as much as GITS17 fumbles its various metaphors in the adaptation process, this new one comes across quite clearly: Johansson stands over the grave of Kusanagi, the Asian, and nudges her mother, the audience, to move on. “Get over it,” the film says. She’s accepted herself as someone who transcends racial boundaries into something bold, something new, and so, too, should we. Of course, the character who transcends those boundaries still has the face of a white person, and in this way the film becomes the living embodiment of that person you know who insists they don’t see race and neither should you/society.

There has, as usual, been pushback, a rush to defend the system that tells predominantly white stories. People insist that Johansson’s casting makes sense in-universe, that this is not the film to pick a fight with. It’s true that Oshii’s GITS95 never specifies a race for the Major — Motoko Kusanagi is an assumed name (one key point Sanders/the screenwriters get wrong is the fakeness of the name “Kusanagi,” which sounds great to English speakers but is a clear alias considering it’s the name of a mythological/maybe-real Japanese sword). It’s also true that Oshii came out in support of Johansson with pretty much this exact argument. However, Oshii speaks as a Japanese filmmaker, and it probably goes without saying that Japan, an Asian country, has few issues with Asian representation. So, the question: given the few opportunities available to Asians in Hollywood, if they can’t even get cast as the lead of an anime adaptation, what can they lead?

Furthermore, even if we ignore the Asian-as-hell setting in GITS95 that makes Kusanagi’s ethnicity an easy contextual guess, the argument of what makes sense “in-universe” means very little for Asians getting roles in Hollywood; instead, it means placing equal emphasis on Asian representation and the written excuse for their continued absence. People will accept one or the other. And because of how fluid the adaptation process is, because of how easy it is for writers to shift/insert things that justify the casting of a white actor, there will always be excuses. Films where the casting doesn’t make sense in-universe end up less as targets of justified outrage than scripts that lack the right excuse. The idea of what makes sense “in-universe” becomes just another obstacle for minorities, a club to bludgeon them with when they step out of line as docile consumers.

The villain of GITS17, Hanka Robotics, takes Asians and places them in white bodies. The script cynically uses race to contrast who the Major used to be and who she is now, to underscore the invasive nature of the procedure — Hanka fundamentally changes who she is. It is a dehumanizing process in every sense of the word. I submit another symbol at work here: Hanka Robotics represents the people who made this film.

Some Remarkably Late Thoughts on 2016 Music and the Nature of Lists

I took a job a few minutes from my apartment midway through 2016, and in the absence of a commute, my music-listening ability pretty much tanked. When you lack the mental capacity to just sit down like a regular person and channel your inner model-who-stars-in-a-headphone-ad, the question of discovering music gets complicated. In this regard, the various music lists that websites put out during the year are invaluable.

Normally, I find lists to be hugely contentious. There’s something inherently authoritative about putting things in a specific order that I think people (myself included) respond badly to, which is exploited on a daily basis for clicks. Lists aren’t there to debate; they’re there to tell you the way things are and in what order they are. When our personal feelings inevitably clash with such decrees, we protest. It’s even easier to protest when you closely follow the subject in question, because then you’ve had the time to develop your own idea of what the ranking should look like if there’s any justice in the world; at that point, you seek out the lists to have your views validated, which just enhances the potential for conflict.

But what happens when you don’t follow the subject closely? It’s real easy for me to snort at, say, one of the top 10 lists that are part of every film critic’s job description, but I don’t have nearly the same kind of knowledge about music. Part of that is simply because I don’t make as much of an effort to be knowledgeable about music, but the other part is, I suspect, the medium’s comparative diversity. I haven’t done the math on this, but it seems like the amount of music each year vastly outnumbers how many movies come out or how many video games or how many TV shows. It is, understandably, hard to keep up. Even when more music than I’ll ever need is up for grabs on the streaming platform of my choosing, I’m paralyzed by all the options, encouraged to Stick With What I Know. Curation becomes an issue.

The point here is that, with a mediocre foundation of knowledge to construct an opinion on, I view these music lists as a bit of an outsider. I don’t have as many opinions to feel invalidated, and so I don’t feel authority being imposed. Instead, lists become a way to fill the gaps; something’s place on a list becomes the urgency with which I’m supposed to check it out. Number 3 isn’t better than Number 4 so much as it’s the one I should check out first. And there’s a broadness to music lists that encourages this. They tend to come in top 50s or top 100s, and in recognizing the broadness of the medium, they appear less authoritative, less exclusive. The general implausibility, too, of having strong feelings for the specific placement of 100 items makes the whole thing seem like more of a suggestion than a statement.

When you strip away all the baggage of personal opinions, is this the actual purpose of lists? Of course not. But it’s probably the best way I can think of to look at them.

So here’s a ranked list of some of the music I liked in 2016.

1. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here…Thank you 4 Your Service
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
3. Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
4. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
5. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
6. Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY.
7. The Hotelier – Goodness
8. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
9. Open Mike Eagle – Hella Personal Film Festival
10. Frank Ocean – Blonde
11. Beyoncé – Lemonade
12. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
13. YG – Still Brazy
14. Injury Reserve – Floss
15. Mitski – Puberty 2
16. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
17. Noname – Telephone
18. Solange – A Seat at the Table
20. David Bowie – Blackstar
21. Carly Rae Jepsen – EMOTION SIDE B
22. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
23. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
24. White Lung – Paradise
25. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
26. Vince Staples – Prima Donna
27. Jessy Lanza – Oh No
28. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai
29. Yumi Zouma – Yoncalla
30. Kendrick Lamar- untitled unmastered.
31. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
32. Massive Attack – Ritual Spirit
33. Young Thug – JEFFERY
34. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
35. Skepta – Konnichiwa
36. Rihanna – ANTI
37. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
38. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
39. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost
40. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

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.

A Wildly Overstated Complaint About the Pistol in Max Payne 3

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.