Category Archives: Games

My Favorite Titles

When I was ten years old, my schoolteacher gave a lesson on writing stories. I have this distinct memory of her asking us to think about what makes a good title. Given that we were a bunch of hyperactive little shits, we bombarded her with outrageous names like “THE LAVA DRAGONS” that only escalated in ridiculousness. I remember trying to come up with the craziest, most random title I could think of. When the orgy of shrieks and swallowed snot was over, the teacher told us that the best titles often didn’t spell everything out for you. A good title, she said, created a sense of mystery. You don’t want to reveal everything all at once- you want to pique a person’s interest.

Our teacher then proceeded to tell us what she decreed was the best title in the history of art and media.

The Magic School Bus!” she cried to a silent, head-scratching audience. “Think about it! You hear it and you just think: What made this school bus magic? In what way is it magic? What can it do that a normal school bus can’t? It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? It takes something familiar- a school bus- and it makes it magic!”

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No one said anything. I frowned at the woman; I figured she was just lame. Anything that had the word “school” in the title had to be lame. I was firmly of the belief back then that every teacher had no life outside of school, and that it was their mission to make everything in the world boring.

But what she said did get me thinking about titles, and it made me question my ideas. I knew that next time I had to come up with something cool, I’d think about how it sounded before just shouting it out. As the years went by, I began to appreciate that teacher’s words more and more. Even though I thought she was being dumb at the time, what she said nevertheless got through to me, and it stuck with me, to the point that I’ve held onto it for all these years.

I’ve never considered myself the most imaginative title-creator. It’s something I tend to fret over and struggle with when I’m writing a poem or a story. I spend ages trying to think up something witty and original when asked to think of a name for a pub quiz team, a 5-a-side football team, a video game character, or whatever. I’m deeply envious of people that can come up with something catchy on the spot. When I first met my friend Aaron while studying abroad in the USA, I complimented him on his penchant for lyrical, alliterative phrases and titles. Seemingly on the fly, he’d come up with things I’d never even think of. During the snowy nights at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, we’d be folding laundry and listening to music. Aaron had an indie playlist called “Hay Fever and Horn Frogs”. The title didn’t necessarily make sense, but it rolled off the tongue well and it was playful. There’s no such thing as Horn Frogs- they’re like Bananafish and Jackalopes- but in Argentina there are these little badasses called Horned Frogs.

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At the moment I’m finishing up work on my novel and having to decide on its final title. Most authors tend to come up with working titles as they begin the writing process, and give their manuscript its real title when it is finished. It’s generally considered bad advice to come up with a title before a fleshed out story. I for one feel unable to name something until it’s finished. I have to look back on the work and think about what the most important themes are. There are no set rules as to what makes a good title, but one way to go about it is to think about the essence of your work and create a title that embodies it.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite titles and why I like them. Here’s my list:

 

Long Day’s Journey into Night – play, Eugene O’Neil

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – novel, Maya Angelou

Look Homeward, Angel – novel, Thomas Wolfe

Tree of Wooden Clogs – film, Ermanno Olmi

A Streetcar Named Desire – play, Tennessee Williams

No Country for Old Men – novel, Cormac McCarthy

Things We Lost in the Fire – film, Allan Loeb

Beneath a Steel Sky – video game, Dave Cummins

Shadow of the Colossus – video game, Fumito Ueda

Out of this Furnace – novel, Thomas Bell

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – novel, Anne Tyler

Minutes to Midnight – album, Linkin Park

Dreams of Milk & Honey – album, Mountain

Physical Graffiti – album, Led Zeppelin

Where the Red Fern Grows – novel, Wilson Rawls

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – film, Guillermo Arriaga

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – novel, John Berendt

The Autumn of the Patriarch – novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – memoir, Meg Fee

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – novel, Jeanette Winterson

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – short story, Harlan Ellison

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – novel, Carson McCullers

Call Me By Your Name – novel, Andre Aciman

 

Looking at my list, I can already see that I have a real thing for lyrical and poetic titles. A lot of these titles are fairly long too. Heck, some of them are even complete sentences. I like titles to feel unique rather than punchy. But that’s just me. What are some of your favorite titles? Let me know in the comments!

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Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 4 – American Venom (Spoilers)

When I set out to blog about Red Dead Redemption 2 I had no idea I was writing a quartet. This game is so vast and layered that more and more features seem to emerge for me to write about every time I sit down at my desk. Each deceptively-simple sentence begets another. Each planned paragraph leads to an unplanned one. And each blog post seems to carry within it the seeds of the next. But for what it’s worth, this definitely is the last post in the series.

If you’re finding me for the first time, I covered the gameplay in part one, the themes and tone of the franchise as a whole in part two, and the plot in part three. Today I’d like to write about the epilogue, as well as take a closer look at our protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston. Needless to say, there will be spoilers from here on out.

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When I started my Red Dead Redemption 2 playthrough, I wasn’t sure what to make of Arthur Morgan as a character. At first glance he seemed bland and generic. During the game’s effective opening chapter, he didn’t stand out very much. By contrast, the likes of Micah, Sadie, and Dutch were a lot more colorful. I wondered if RDR2 was following the gaming trend of having all the peripheral characters more lively and interesting than the protagonist. Perhaps there is a reason so many playable characters get outshined by their supporting cast. Maybe a quiet, brooding hero appeals to the widest audience? Or maybe it’s all about letting the player project their own personality onto the protagonist, making it therefore desirable to developers to create an inoffensive blank slate for us to infuse with whatever qualities we so chose?

I will say that I wasn’t giving Rockstar enough credit.

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Arthur Morgan’s greatness is in his subtlety. He emerges as a nuanced character as the narrative progresses. He becomes more complex as a person and as a character because the events of the plot cause him to look inward and really think about his actions. His arc is so compelling because Arthur becomes more self-aware. Put simply, he is a totally different person at the end of the plot than he was at the beginning. And so often in video games, the only notable difference in the protagonist at the end of the game is the fact their fingernails now smell like coins.

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When the game begins, Arthur is a senior member of the gang, serving as Dutch’s right hand man. As the latter dominates the cutscenes with his stylish outfit and verbose speeches, Arthur at first glance is playing the role of a henchman. He’s a grizzled, no-nonsense gunman. In a movie, he’d be a character whose primary role in the plot is to be pumped with lead at some point. I noted several moments at the beginning of the game where members of the gang would tease Arthur for being inarticulate or simple. This makes his transformation all the more affecting in my opinion; I love that Rockstar have given us this ostensibly dumb henchman as our leading man only to reveal that he is far more nuanced than the stereotype he seemingly inhabits.

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As the game went on, I actually found it a breath of fresh air that the protagonist wasn’t the chosen one or something. He’s not special, famous, or powerful. He’s just the trusty hired muscle to Dutch’s swaggering, infamous, larger-than-life celebrity. Too often games try to make players feel important by making the player-character a legend in the world of that game, or a leader of some kind. But it tends to feel hollow and token when you have to personally do everything. Perhaps the best example of this is in Fallout 4, where the factions in the game make you their leader after only knowing you 20 minutes, and then proceed to send you on the most mundane of fetch quests. Am I a king or a fucking errand boy? I’d ask myself. In Mafia 3, the game teases you with the exciting promise of being the boss of the city’s criminal underworld. But there’s no real gameplay based around the management of a criminal enterprise. Despite being the boss, you have to personally clear out entire warehouses full of thugs by yourself. In real life, mafia bosses don’t leave the goddamn house. These desperate attempts to make the player feel important often fall flat because they don’t gel with the actual gameplay. For instance, in the Mass Effect series, you can’t send Garrus and a few redshirt space marines down to the surface to take out alien strongholds on your behalf, because that wouldn’t make for a very fun game would it? Despite being the commander, you have to personally see to everything, leaving the majority of these highly-trained warriors you’ve been recruiting from all corners of the galaxy to remain on the ship playing Ticket to Ride in the mess hall.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t suffer from this disconnect however. Your role as a gunslinger compliments the gameplay. It makes sense that you’ll do the heavy lifting and ride into town looking for ways to “earn”.

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As the plot progresses, Arthur starts to think about the morality of how he “earns”. I got the feeling that, far from being blind to the sins of his work, Arthur had merely repressed these doubts for many years. At the beginning of the game, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a good person, and more or less embraces his outlaw persona. But as the actions of the gang become more reckless and violent in the wake of Hosea’s death, Arthur finds that he has to confront these doubts. Dutch goes too far, and Arthur discovers that despite his low opinion of himself, he isn’t like his mentor after all. He’s a better person than that, and during Chapter 6 he works to become a better person. It’s a beautiful catharsis, because Arthur is taking his life into his own hands and working to do the right thing. Now he has a real sense of agency. He’s not just accepting his status as a petty outlaw- he’s striving to be better. He acquires a modicum of dignity and self-respect that flies in the face of Dutch’s authority. Now Arthur’s more than just a hired gun. His tuberculosis diagnosis fills him with a desire to determine exactly who he is and what his legacy will be.

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Before the diagnosis, he acts more or less indifferent to the wrongs of the gang and the suffering of innocents. He’s not evil like Micah, but he has no self-esteem and seems content just to submit to an outlaw’s existence. He doesn’t believe at this point that he can be better, or that there is any other path for him. He’s amoral. When Charles seeks to help the German family, Arthur dismisses the idea. It’s not their problem. Charles challenges him, telling Arthur that he’s better than that. And when the German guy they save gives Arthur a gold bar, he’s humbled and speechless. He’s starting to realize that it feels good to help others.

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Once he gets diagnosed with tuberculosis, he begins to reflect on his actions a lot more. For the first time in his life, he has the bravery to look inside at his doubts and resolve to do the right thing. I’ve written in my previous posts how Rockstar uses its characters as vehicles for the larger themes of the narrative. Arthur represents the biggest theme of the franchise- redemption. His sense of shame and regret compels him to do the right thing and make amends for his past. This was incredibly powerful for me. Arthur stands up to Dutch and goes out of his way to secure a future for John and his family. The advice Arthur gives John in many ways drives the entire plot of RDR1.

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Arthur sees that John has a chance at the life he himself could have had with Mary Linton and implores John to take it. Ultimately he sacrifices himself to see John achieve that dream. And John follows that advice so well throughout the epilogue…until he doesn’t. The biggest tragedy of the game is that, after finally setting himself and his family up for a life of peace, he makes the fateful decision to avenge Arthur, which Arthur wouldn’t have wanted. He rides to Mt. Hagen and kills Micah, which is very satisfying. But this decision then sets off a chain of events which lead to RDR1. Edgar Ross finds Micah’s corpse and tracks Marston back to his family farm, which utterly destroys the life Marston had worked so hard to build. It’s admittedly a tough decision; now that everything has come together, John feels an immense debt to Arthur, and a real duty to avenge the friend that made his new life possible. Ultimately however, Abigail is right: Micah isn’t worth sacrificing their newfound happiness. In avenging Arthur’s death, John is tarnishing the very thing Arthur died for, and disregarding his last wish.

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Much like Arthur, John Marston is a different person by the end of the narrative. At first he’s this lucky rascal with nine lives and a wayward spirit. He has trouble committing to something and he doesn’t know what he wants. By his own admission he is a lousy father. He and Abigail don’t sleep in the same bed, and there’s no relationship to speak of. But as the game goes on, he matures, finds a sense of focus, and realizes how important Abigail and Jack are to him. Arthur plays a big role in helping him realize this. By the end of the game, John, Abigail, and Jack are a working family.

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Overall, the epilogue was my favorite part of the game. The pace was much more steady, the events more realistic, and I liked how character-driven the missions were. The epilogue itself would make a great standalone film or novel in my opinion. A stranger shows up at a ranch, desperate for work, trying his best to hide his mysterious past, but is forced to relive it when the shit hits the fan. The relationship between John and Abigail is also really touching. They’re both people with rough, impoverished upbringings, who have lived on the fringes of society. They don’t feel entitled to a dream. But as the plot goes on, they start to dream a little, and you see them enjoying life for the first time. It’s bittersweet; you’re sad because you know it will all end in tragedy, but you’re also glad they got to experience true happiness before it all goes to shit during RDR1.

One of my favorite fan theories involves a little detail during the house-building scene. Throughout the montage, a blue jay appears multiple times in John’s vicinity. Given the various references to reincarnation throughout the game, many have speculated that the bird might be Arthur. If you got the good ending, Arthur dies peacefully while watching the sunrise. He loved nature and blue is sort of his color throughout the game- the color of loyalty. Whether Rockstar intended this in a literal sense I can’t say- but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s just nice to believe that Arthur’s watching over John as he follows his advice.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 3 – Cruel, Cruel World (Spoilers)

To continue my series of Red Dead Redemption 2 posts, I’d like to examine the plot and characters in greater detail. You can click here for my review of the gameplay and you can click here for my essay regarding the overall tone of the franchise. Today I’m looking with a more intimate focus at specific scenes in the plot and what they mean. My aim is to give an overview of the narrative and what I thought about it as I was playing it. Needless to say, there are spoilers in this post. If you haven’t played the game yet, you should totally do so- and then come back!

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The narrative of Red Dead Redemption 2 begins in medias res, and does so with great effect. In fact, RDR2 contains one of the most gripping and effective openings of any game I have ever played. Often when I look back at a game, the beginning is rarely if ever my favorite part. It’s such an important component of crafting a story, and yet in the medium of gaming there are so few opening missions that I truly cherish. For the most part they take the form of rigid tutorials, and you just want to get through it and get to the exciting stuff. I remember every time I replayed KOTOR 2 as a teenager I just wanted to rush through Peragus and explore the vibrant galaxy beyond. KOTOR 2 had a subtle, slow boil- which, though well-written- didn’t make for the most memorable introduction to a game. The opposite approach is something like the bukkake of lead that is the opening of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which was so fast-paced my engagement became lost. And then you get the boring and bland openings- as is the case with Skyrim– where the events of the game don’t feel as intense as they really should be. Skyrim is another title like KOTOR 2 where a certain amount of rigmarole is required before the player can enjoy the game proper. The reason I don’t dive back into it more often is because the idea of going through Bleak Falls Barrow one more time makes me want to start cutting myself.

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But Red Dead Redemption 2– in my personal opinion- gets it just right. As I said, it uses the literary technique of beginning in the middle of the action to great effect. Straight away we’re thrust into this situation where we’re part of a desperate caravan of wagons trying to make its way through a mountain range during a blizzard without repeating the tragedy of the Donner Party. We know something big just went down because of references to gang members that had just died- so we’re already curious as to what just happened, but we can’t dwell on it too long because the danger isn’t over. We need to find food and shelter and locate any missing gang members. The immediacy of these problems is brought to life very well, and this is what makes the opening so immersive. To me, the true art of a video game is the art of illusion. If you find yourself invested in these characters and conflicts, and forget that what you’re seeing is just a few lines of code, some digitized images, then the game has succeeded. RDR2 uses authentic dialogue, beautiful graphics, and clever animations to make the struggle of these folks feel real. I was immediately hooked- I had forgotten I was even playing a game in fact. My sole focus was on taking care of the gang. And the art of illusion goes beyond the visual rendering of the world and its inhabitants- it extends to gameplay as well. RDR2’s Chapter One is a tutorial- but it doesn’t feel like one. In hindsight, I can see that it served to get the player used to various aspects of gameplay- you get to grips with horse riding, deer hunting, wolf-killing, area investigation, and inventory management. But I didn’t think that at the time. I was consumed with helping the gang out of its current predicament. It’s funny how, looking back, I know now that if I took my time, veered off-course, or simply met with the game over screen, nothing would have happened. The missions are linear and always follow the same path. But I was under the illusion that if I didn’t catch this deer, the gang would starve. That’s what immersion is- if a game puts its pieces together in the right way, it can make you feel that everything in front of you is real, that you have more agency than you actually do.

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Chapter One exists as a kind of disguised tutorial. When I first looked back on the game and thought about my fondest moments, I actually picked out Chapter One as perhaps my favorite of the six chapters included within the main story. It’s certainly the chapter in which I was the most engaged- but I think that is undoubtedly because it’s the only chapter that is strictly linear. The gripping sense of immediacy that makes Chapter One so effective isn’t really there in the other chapters, because you’re free at any moment to abandon the gang and go hunt an albino moose in the woods. I stated in my gameplay review that the main story is RDR2’s greatest strength. It’s in my top 10 games of all time for its moments of high tension, its twists, its shocking revelations, its nuanced character development, and its scenes of intense drama. But that is not to say that the game is simply a few excellent cutscenes. I wholeheartedly believe that this story is best told through an interactive medium, rather than a movie or TV series. In my opinion, the gameplay informs the story. It exists to enhance our sense of immersion in both its world and its narrative, as opposed to being a set of mechanics that stand on their own. Without the superb writing, the gameplay would probably be considered functional at best.

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I liked Chapter One so much because I was so engaged. Throughout the rest of the chapters, the main story is experienced in these isolated missions that can sometimes result in their events feeling diminished by the open world vacuum. A good example of this is the mission in which Arthur gets captured by the O’Driscolls and tortured. At first I was engaged and excited, wondering what would happen next. But the mission is completely self-contained, and has no real bearing on the rest of the plot. You begin the mission, go through some cutscenes, get captured, escape, go through some more cutscenes, and then you’re dumped back into the open world again. At first there are a few dialogue lines that refer to your capture, but the whole episode felt pointless. I want events to have lasting consequences, and I wasn’t sure what this mission meant in the grand scheme of things. I was hoping it would shake up gameplay or significantly alter the course of the plot. Maybe it will set up a future mission? I wondered. Maybe Arthur’s escape will lead the O’Driscolls back to the camp, and we have a limited time in which to prepare for the assault? Maybe Colm O’Driscoll will have some kind of secret to tell Arthur that brings his loyalty into question? Maybe Arthur overhears something important during his capture? Maybe they cut off Arthur’s hand and we have to play the rest of the game using only one-handed weapons like sawed-off shotguns and tomahawks? But no, none of that happens. Arthur makes his way home and sleeps off his injuries.

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So what I’m arguing here is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong though- a lot of those parts are fantastic, and in keeping with the quality of the overall storyline. Other parts feel like filler, or they just pale in comparison to the main narrative. My least favorite chapter is Chapter Five, where the gang is stranded on the island of Guarma. It’s like Chapter One in the sense that it’s linear, but unlike Chapter One it doesn’t feel very important to the plot at large. What’s great about Chapter One is that it’s this taut, tight narrative with no extraneous details. There’s nothing there for its own sake. You’re in the mountains and you’re trying to survive. Guarma, by contrast, feels like a contrived homage to John’s expedition to Mexico in the first game. I think it would have worked better as one mission rather than a whole chapter. That way it might have worked as this crazy, exotic interlude. But as a whole Chapter Five just isn’t that engaging. The main plot is put on hold while this new slave revolution storyline takes its place. The story of the islanders and their struggles is too far removed from the events of the main story for us to suddenly become invested in. If it was somehow more closely connected to the main story, and had featured an open world that we can revisit any time we want, that would have been much better. All they’d have to do would be to put a boat in the harbor of Saint Denis that takes us there for a fee (kind of like the way you can travel from Novigrad to Ard Skellig in The Witcher 3, or Windhelm to Solstheim in The Elder Scrolls V). Then we could have a port town (think Havana, or perhaps San Juan) that acts as a hub area and trading post, with unique laws, commercial goods, and amenities as compared to the municipalities of the mainland. Add to that a jungle for exploration, with rare flora and fauna- again, distinct from the mainland- and then Guarma would be a worthy follow-up to RDR1’s Mexico. It would also justify Guarma having its own entire chapter.

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I will say though, that I liked the scene in the cave where the old crone pulls a shiv on Dutch and he smashes her face in. I know that sounds creepy, but the reason I like it is because it was a little character moment that highlighted Dutch’s growing appetite for violence. It’s an important scene because it seems to confirm Arthur’s fears that his best friend is not who he thought he was. If Arthur were in his shoes, he would have just disarmed the murderous grandma and told her to fuck off. He’s only as violent as he needs to be, and he doesn’t take pleasure in it. When he sees Dutch drown Angelo Bronte and feed him to an alligator, Arthur is a little disturbed by the savagery of it, but probably assumes this is due to the heat of the moment. Bronte was a revenge killing, and as a fellow criminal, more or less fair game. But the little grandma is different. Even though she’s channeling the foul witch Sycorax- who with age and envy was grown into a hoop- she’s not really much of a threat. Grabbing grannies by the hair and repeatedly smashing them nose-first into a wall until their faces resemble those of 90s polygon graphics seems wholly gratuitous. The way the scene is shot is superb- the claustrophobia of the tight cave and the way the characters’ sweaty faces and raggedy clothes are illuminated by the torchlight contributed to this feeling that our protagonists had crossed into a new realm, both literally and figuratively. They’re somewhere they don’t belong (Guarma) and this shift into unknown territory reflects the moral shift of the gang. As a general rule, the humidity of a tropical jungle is a great literary device to highlight a character’s deteriorating sanity. Jungles are wild and dangerous places, and have a way of pulling us back to our primitive roots. Oftentimes, a story’s protagonist has to become bestial and sacrifice their humanity in order to navigate such an environment. That’s kind of what happens to Dutch. Guarma is an unforgiving jungle, but in a metaphorical sense, so too is the mess the gang is in. And by the end of the game, it changes them.

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There are several narratives at work in Red Dead Redemption 2, and one of the most important ones is that of violence. In a sense, this is the original concept of the game. The entire game is born out of a line from John Marston in RDR1 that he left the Dutch Van der Linde Gang when it became too violent. RDR2 is the story of that moral decay. In Chapter One we are given hints that Dutch killed an innocent woman during a botched robbery. Arthur doesn’t witness it, but the news disturbs him. Chapter Two sees the gang seemingly land back on their feet. At this point there’s a sense of hope and optimism. Everyone assumes life will go on as normal, and they get back to the business of making money from various schemes, be it rustling cattle or robbing banks. Classic outlaw stuff. I enjoyed this chapter because it’s the most classically western in tone. I’d say it’s my second favorite, after Chapter One. Chapter Three sees the gang flee to the swamps of Lemonye in order to lie low. The pressure is on, the mood is more tense, but we haven’t reached a boiling point yet. The Deep South seems like a good place for the gang to hide, so long as it earns its money quietly. Things get a little more desperate in Chapter Four- which for me is one of upheaval. It is perhaps the episode with the most significant changes. It begins with young Jack getting kidnapped by the Mafia, before a devastating assault by the O’Driscolls reveals that Kieran Duffy has been decapitated shortly after having his eyes gouged out, and ends with a disastrous bank heist that leaves Hosea and Lenny dead. A lot of fans consider the end of Chapter Four as a turning point in the gang’s history. It’s the most tumultuous period for the gang and establishes the dividing lines that will tear it apart later on. The death of Hosea is particularly significant, in that he represents the gang’s conscience. His presence had hitherto upheld this code that the gang only kills if it has to, and preys upon the rich. This strange sense of outlaw chivalry is actually rooted in real history, as the James-Younger Gang were known for checking the hands of those they robbed on train heists. If the person’s hands were worn and dirty, they left them alone as they were probably manual workers. If you had immaculate, dainty white hands with smooth, soft skin and slim, delicate fingers, you were buggered. Even though Dutch is the leader and face of the gang, Hosea is the co-founder and the decisions are often jointly-made between them. Hosea is the perfect counter to Dutch’s charisma and willpower, in that he is rational and even-tempered. Without Hosea in the way, the recklessly-violent Micah is free to influence Dutch’s decision-making. Chapter Five shows the effect of this a little bit with the aforementioned granny-bashing scene, but in my opinion drags on too long with pointless action sequences and tower-defense modes. Chapter Six is much better (in my humble estimation). Dutch becomes increasingly reckless as Micah gains his ear, and quickly starts hatching schemes that he never would have with Hosea around. The way Micah slowly emerges as the villain of the game is actually really interesting. Up until Chapter Six he’s a pretty minor character, one that seemingly serves as the token psycho of the group. But I like that his violent nature isn’t just to make him colorful or whacky. It’s a part of the moral dialogue of the narrative. His character is something that’s discussed throughout the game, and it affects the course of events. At first I wondered if he was just included in the game the way Trevor was in GTA V, whose immorality exists for entertainment purposes. But this isn’t the case- he’s a career criminal whose immorality is the product of a troubled upbringing. And what I find really fascinating about Micah is that he doesn’t want to be the leader of the gang- he wants to exploit Dutch’s creativity and charisma to make a big score. It shows how powerful Dutch’s name is- that even years later, when Micah has his own gang, he still wants a lone Dutch to come back and orchestrate things. His attitude toward Dutch is tantamount to a possessive child that wants to be best friends with the popular kid and remain the trusted number two.

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In my previous post I talked about the characters existing as vessels for the themes Rockstar wants to explore. Dutch, as I said, seems to represent the theme of the changing times, as he hopelessly tries to fight a battle that he can’t possibly win. Micah, on the other hand, represents this theme of violence I’ve been referring to. He’s a testament to the brutality of the Old West, in that the source of his violence comes from the life of crime and struggle he was born into. He brings out the worst in Dutch, and his violent nature spreads like a poison, which dismantles the gang from within. All sense of family and loyalty is lost as several members flee for their lives.

Again, the themes are intertwined with the gameplay. Not only do the missions become more violent from Chapter Four onward, but they also become more senselessly violent. Perhaps chief among them is the armed conflict between the Wapiti Indians and the US military. It’s exciting stuff, but it’s also infused with this sense of tragedy. The whole situation feels regrettable and unnecessary, which adds some emotional weight to all the death.

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But of course, the story doesn’t end with the breakdown of the gang and the death of the protagonist. There’s an 8-10 hour epilogue that bridges the gap between RDR2 and RDR1. This epilogue is so well-executed that it deserves its own post. It’s hard to separate the various parts of the story because they’re all so good in their own way. As I said, Chapter One was perhaps my favorite when taking into account each chapter as a working whole- but undoubtedly a lot of my favorite moments take place in Chapters 4 and 6. What about you? I’d love to get a discussion going in the comments! Let me know what your favorite moments were in the game and why you liked them. Thanks for reading!

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 2- The Last Days of the Old West (Spoilers)

In my spoiler-free gameplay review of Red Dead Redemption 2 I made the claim that it contained the best story I had ever experienced in a game, surpassing even the likes of The Witcher 3 and Bioshock Infinite. Naturally, dishing out superlatives like that is going to raise a few disbelieving eyebrows. You might think I’m still basking in the afterglow or being hyperbolic. I know I also run the risk of tainting the first playthroughs of people who haven’t played it yet by promising them the unequivocal greatest narrative in gaming history. I want to stress that I thought very carefully about making that claim. I wasn’t just caught up in the moment. I had to sit for a while and think about what made The Witcher 3 so good and recall the emotions it elicited from me at the time of playing. I thought about where that game left me upon completion- considering not just the journeys of its characters but the journey it took me on as a player. I then stacked this against RDR2. And that was when I knew- the way I felt about the characters and my investment in their struggles was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. The main story- with its colorful, flawed characters and nuanced themes of redemption and morality- is in my personal opinion, the finest I have ever experienced as a gamer. In today’s post, I’d like to write about why I think that. Needless to say, what follows contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.

I’ve never been a big fan of prequels. Whenever I hear that something is getting a prequel I usually groan. As a fan of a given franchise, I want to know what happens next. I want to know that events have consequences. The other problem I have with prequels is that they can suffer from a lack of tension when you already know the outcome. However, RDR2 meets both these concerns head-on. The first game ended perfectly- satisfying in that Jack Marston avenges his father, but also leaving us with the dark implication that he might repeat his father’s mistakes. All the other characters are dead, and it would have ruined the effect of that dark implication about Jack’s future to spell it out for us. Also, when the epilogue concludes, the year is 1914- which is already pushing it for a western. Even if the Marston storyline hadn’t been wrapped up perfectly, a direct sequel would have been contemporaneous with World War 1. As far as my other concern regarding prequels, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of tension because we are given control of a new protagonist- Arthur Morgan- as well as being introduced to a slew of new characters to care about.

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Before I played RDR2, I figured it would probably only be loosely connected to the first game, and that the reappearance of established characters was just to show that we’re in the same universe. But this isn’t the case at all. RDR2 feels like it had always existed, as though Rockstar had left out the first half of a singular, cohesive story when they released the first game in 2010. It doesn’t tell a different story with the same characters. It’s the same story, which makes it a little confusing when you consider that Red Dead Redemption 2 comes before Red Dead Redemption 1 in the chronology. The character arcs of Dutch and especially John have their beginnings in RDR2 and now the first game seems incomplete when considered on its own. When given the context of its prequel, the original game seems so much more powerful as a story. That’s one of the things I love about RDR2– it actually enhances the depth and quality of its predecessor. I appreciate the original game so much more now that I see it as belonging to this epic story that spans many years. It also makes the original Red Dead seem a lot more bleak. What few characters survived the events of RDR2 are hardened, cynical, and ruthless. They reflect the changing times and the smallness of the individual in the face of rapid industrial expansion. I’d even go so far as to describe the bleakness of the franchise as Kafkaesque- in that these strong and resourceful outlaws are powerless in the face of the immensity of modern bureaucracy. This is exemplified by the gameplay too; it doesn’t matter how many Pinkertons you kill- the government will just send more. It all adds to this sense that individuals are dictated and controlled by larger forces far beyond their understanding, and to resist those forces is futile. This is especially evident in RDR2– and is why it is so effective as a prequel- because you know that all you can do is buy yourself more time. All roads lead to death. The changing times engulf all of the characters in the end. Whether you get a game-over or complete a given mission successfully, it doesn’t matter in the long run- you know what happens. John Marston gets gunned down in his own home by a posse of government agents. It’s such an effective climax to the series, because it’s the shocking culmination of everything that has been hinted at thus far- the forces of modernity extinguishing the Old West for good. It’s a brilliant conclusion to the John Marston storyline, and it’s one that’s made all the more effective by RDR2.

For instance, when RDR2 starts, the gang are in a tough spot but they’re hopeful. The characters expect to pull through the way they always have. And then, as the game progresses, there are more and more hints that the gang’s way of life is coming to an end. You can see the hope slowly fading- and it’s a very well-written, gradual collapse. The gang can only shoot their way out of a situation so many times. The sophisticated apparatus of modern law enforcement is too much. And in the face of this unstoppable and relentless pursuit, the gang ultimately crumbles from within as their worst instincts are revealed. Arthur Morgan wonders if recent events have corrupted his best friend, or if they have only illuminated what was always there. Dutch was a great leader and companion when things were going well, but as soon as the gang got desperate, he had to call upon the darkness that lived dormant within his soul in his attempt to save the gang. And once he indulged that orgy of violence, the lines blurred and it became more about saving himself than his friends. The little details illustrate Dutch’s unraveling best- at the beginning of the game he stresses that there is a clear distinction between his gang and the O’Driscolls. The latter, he says, stand for nothing; they hire only remorseless cutthroats and are excessively violent. And of course, when we reach Chapters 5 and 6 of RDR2, we see the abandonment of any pretense of honor. In his desperation to save the gang, Dutch’s morality is lost along the way. Each act of reckless savagery begets the next, as Dutch becomes less and less able to convince us that the ends justify the means.

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Once you get to the events of the original Red Dead, the sense of hope is truly gone. RDR1 is- in every facet of its design- from the haunting music to the desolate landscape- a nihilistic and elegiac deconstruction of the western genre. All that’s left is a cynical and weary man- John Marston- trying simply to keep his family. He doesn’t believe in anything, he’s more or less ambivalent towards the few outlaws that remain- he just wants to reunite with his wife and son, and he doesn’t care how he reaches that end. John’s only agency is the six-shooter at his hip. Being a crack shot and ruthless killer doesn’t make him seem that powerful or impressive in the last, dying days of the West- and that to me is key to the franchise’s overarching themes. A gun only buys you another day- if you’re lucky. In this western, the gunslinger doesn’t have the most power or agency; his skills with a revolver don’t count for much. John is the best gunslinger in the series, and if you take all of the events into account, you’d think he ought to be the Legend of the West. But he doesn’t seem legendary or indeed that great. When he dies, he’ll be forgotten.

The point I’m making is, the theme of the franchise is that the true power lies in bureaucratic institutions. John doesn’t want to be running around the country hunting down his former gang members- he does it because he’s got no choice. He keeps pressing forward because playing the government’s game is the only option left to him. Again, the gameplay informs the narrative, as trying to veer off-path during a story mission will result in an instant game-over. The open world isn’t available to you during a mission- and this linear constraint placed on the player is reflective of the constraint placed on John, who has no path to take except the one laid out for him. And when we meet Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, they are nothing like the companions we knew in RDR2. In the prequel they are colorful and not without a little human warmth. Williamson is carefree and simple, he loves to drink, and his tough exterior is peeled back in endearing character-moments, such as when he asks Arthur to get him some pomade for his hair. He’s also extremely loyal to Dutch, and in one scene he reveals how Dutch helped him through a particularly low and difficult point in his life. Escuella is even more likable- he’s passionate and artistic, he’s not recklessly violent, and he often entertains the group with songs and guitar-playing. But by the time of RDR1, they’ve lost all semblance of human warmth. Williamson is terrorizing New Austin with his own gang, and seems less of a big oaf and more of a cold-blooded, remorseless killer. And without Dutch he’s lost that sense of purpose and principle, often throwing his own men at Marston instead of fighting alongside them. He cowardly avoids him throughout the game. Escuella is also without any redeeming qualities, coming across as a self-interested trickster. He tries to charm Marston by appealing to their old sense of brotherhood, but when Marston refuses, we see just how hateful Escuella really is.

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Then, of course, we have Dutch Van der Linde- easily one of the most compelling characters in gaming history. I’m not sure I’d even describe him as a villain. The true villain of the franchise as a whole is Edgar Ross, in my opinion. As for RDR2 on its own, the villain is of course Micah Bell. Dutch simply plays the role of an antagonist at various points in the story. I don’t think he can really be called a villain (even though he does some awful things throughout the series) at least in a narrative sense. The biggest reason for this is that- in my personal opinion, that is- Dutch seems to genuinely believe everything he says, even when those around him can see his hypocrisy. At the end of Chapter 6, Dutch seems distraught at the sight of Micah and Arthur locked in this Cain-and-Abel style wrestling match, covered in mud, clawing at each other, gauging and throttling and head-bashing with pure, unadulterated, animalistic hatred. He won’t kill Arthur, even though he feels betrayed by him. He just seems saddened by what the gang has come to. And during the final showdown atop Mt. Hagen at the end of the Epilogue, Dutch saves Sadie and John by killing Micah. Despite everything, in his own warped mind, Dutch still thinks of John as his son.

The Dutch we see in RDR1– while still charismatic and verbose- is a shell of the cigar-smoking, bowler-hat wearing outlaw-gentleman we see in New Hanover waltzing with Molly in the moonlight, singing arm-in-arm beside the campfire, or espousing his idealistic, anti-capitalist philosophy of life. Hard times have reduced him to this petty murderer- something that Arthur speculated was in him all along. Struggle reveals our true nature. And when we encounter Dutch in RDR1, we see that he’s indulged violence for so long that he’s numb to it. He doesn’t even try to justify it. He has no regard for human life whatsoever. The most powerful scene for me is when Dutch finally meets his end in Tall Trees. It’s not some badass showdown you might expect from a western. You realize in that moment that Dutch isn’t the true villain. He’s just this desperate man fighting a war he cannot win. The design choices are particularly interesting- the Dutch of 1899 always appeared very slick and well-dressed, a man of fine tastes. But in 1911, he’s gray, worn-out, and raggedy-looking. He has no quarrel with John, and spares his former surrogate-son the tough decision of how to handle the situation. Dutch blows his own brains out and tumbles off the precipice into the forest below. It’s such a nuanced conclusion that is so fitting for the bleak tone of the series- that this legendary, elusive outlaw dies unceremoniously and pitifully in a deserted wilderness with no one around. Like with John, the game portrays the outlaws not as heroes, but simply as men- with all the fragility and weakness so often denied them in mainstream cinematic portrayals. Dutch, despite his long career as an unstoppable shootist, is afforded no respect. His corpse is shot several times by Edgar Ross for a laugh. He looks like a bum and he dies like a bum.

To me, Dutch Van der Linde is the embodiment of the dying west. That’s what I love about Rockstar’s approach to creating characters. Instead of going with the easy option of making Dutch a clichéd outlaw villain, they make him a microcosm of the changing times of the turn of the century. The conflict that beats within his heart is the wider conflict that sees the eroding of a way of life in the Old West. It’s masterful- and Dutch isn’t the only character that is a microcosm of the game’s themes and ideas. But we’ll explore more of that in part 3.

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In this post I just wanted to discuss the bleakness of the franchise and how it ties the two games together. As I said earlier, a lot of the themes in the two games are illustrated with little details- in particular the design choices. It’s fitting that the setting for RDR1 is a scorched desert. John’s smallness- and the diminishing existence of outlaws- is reflected by the howling desert all around him. With the exception of the New Elizabeth area, the landscape of the original game is dusty and barren, with a lot of flat, open terrain that accentuates the smallness of the protagonist. The harsh landscape of desert basins, rocky mesas, and jagged canyons in which the last embers of the Old West slowly fade away are reminiscent of the unforgiving country in southeastern Utah and northern Arizona. The prequel, by contrast, is exceptionally green- and this isn’t a coincidence. The colorful, vibrant lands teeming with life evoke the fact that the Old West is still breathing- for now. The epic valleys and mountain ranges of Ambarino are reminiscent of Montana/Idaho, the northern half of West Elizabeth around Strawberry is a gorgeous reimagining of Wyoming, the prairie and bluffs of New Hanover are obviously Nebraska, the swamps of Lemonye owe their sticky atmosphere to Louisiana, and I’m pretty sure the forested hills dotted with coal mines that compose Roanoke Ridge are meant to be an homage to Kentucky and West Virginia. The transition from these green and fertile lands to the dry desert of New Austin is the ideal transition for the story of the Red Dead franchise.

I hope you’ve been able to keep up- it can be quite confusing to constantly refer to the events of the second game as preceding the first. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on the bleakness of the Red Dead series and why it’s so effective. In my next piece, I’m going to focus more closely on the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 and its protagonist Arthur Morgan. Hopefully you are beginning to see why I like the franchise so much.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 1 (No Spoilers)

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for the release of a game as I was for Red Dead Redemption 2. I played the first one in the summer of 2012, several years after its release. I remember being absolutely blown away by its graphics. It was probably the most immersive open world I’d experienced in gaming. The vast empty spaces of the New Austin desert were so important to that sense of immersion, making the game world feel bigger than it was. More than any game I’d played up until that point, it felt truly lived-in. To me, the appeal of the game was as a Wild West simulator. Riding through a landscape so bleak and desolate added to this impression of a fading way of life, which is what the series is all about- the death of the Old West.

I distinctly remember my dad coming in the room as I was driving a stagecoach from MacFarlane’s Ranch to the plateau that overlooks the desert basin.

“Wow,” he remarked. “You’re actually like…in the Wild West. Like it’s real.”

I knew before playing Red Dead Redemption 2 that all these vivid details would be even more effectual than the previous installment. I was hyped to experience what promised to be the most immersive world in gaming history. All the information teased prior to release indicated that Rockstar had become obsessed with tiny details- the most famous of course being the shrinking horse testicles in cold weather environments. I liked that the developer had this artistic vision they were sticking to, that they wanted to go further than any other developer had, and that they prioritized this vision above player convenience.

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And it’s this bold commitment to immersion that will inevitably divide some gamers. For someone like me, the game’s lofty artistic ambitions make it an almost perfect fit. But not all gamers are the same. I’m primarily interested in things like story, artistic design, world-building, and other aesthetic crap. As far as my profile as a gamer goes, the gameplay need only be serviceable. And that’s why it’s difficult to give this game and its components a definitive rating. For example, the fact that fast travel isn’t really a thing doesn’t bother me very much, but it will irk some. It all depends on your tolerance for the aesthetic experiences Rockstar wants you to indulge in.

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The many features that make this game so realistic- such as the long animations involved in skinning dead animals, the fact you can’t run when inside the gang’s camp, and the need to maintain the health of your horse- will certainly put off players. It all depends on what you’re looking for in a game, and that’s why I can’t review those aspects so much- I can only give my personal opinion on them. At first it took a little getting used to realizing that once I got off my horse, I had to remember to remove the specific guns I wanted from my saddle. But in the end, it didn’t ruin my experience. Most story missions will automatically equip the two guns necessary for that particular mission. These little details can’t really be reviewed because it’s mostly a matter of your individual tolerance as a player.

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The missions themselves, however, are a much more interesting subject for review. If you’ve played any Rockstar game, you’ve played this. The gameplay is in stark contrast to the world in which it is set. The world is a stunning example of cutting-edge graphics technology. Everything from the lighting, the ambient sounds, the dynamic weather system, the complex AI of NPCs, the meticulously detailed animations, and so forth, contributes to an atmosphere that is downright spellbinding. The rendering of the world and everything in it is a staggering accomplishment, and it will set the standard for years to come. But as cutting-edge and groundbreaking as the world is, the gameplay itself feels very old. Don’t get me wrong, it’s serviceable, it works, and I had a lot of fun with it. But there’s no sense of advancement in this area of the game. The combat plays exactly the same as a game you might find on the PS2 or the original Xbox. It incorporates everything from GTA, LA: Noire, and the previous Red Dead for better or worse.

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The combat is heavily cover-based. It’s designed around the basic idea that you go from one area of cover to the next, picking off enemies with the auto-aim mechanic as they pop up from their own cover positions, all the while trying to prevent yourself from getting flanked. That’s all you need to know really. Every ground-based firefight will follow this same pattern. And you know exactly what to do in every scenario- the enemy AI has only one goal in mind and that’s to flank you so that you’re flushed out into the open. Cover is everything. And that’s fine for a story-driven game- but it doesn’t have the organic sense of excitement and reward that comes with bringing down the robot dinosaurs in Horizon: Zero Dawn, or jumping off a high-speed sky-rail and eye-gouging white supremacists in Bioshock: Infinite. I’m not saying that the combat of Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t fun- I’m just saying that it doesn’t innovate.

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There are of course, shootouts on horseback and I didn’t like that very much at all. As I said, the combat is very simple and based around this idea of staying in cover. But you can’t do that while riding your horse. So if you’re riding around the bayou and find yourself gang-raped by a posse of bounty hunters, you’ve really got no choice but to haul ass until you’re far enough away that you’ve either lost them, or are able to line them up and pick them off one at a time. Combat on horseback tends to be a lot more fun in missions, because the context of the situation gives it that exhilarating feeling you want from a horse-chase in the Wild West. The missions are also extremely linear and scripted, which means that the enemies appear in convenient positions for you to shoot them, as opposed to ambushing you from multiple angles.

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This leads into another point though, which is the inherent problem of all Rockstar games- and that is the “open world paradox”. While it makes the horseback combat easier, I doubt you were enthralled by my remarks about the missions as being “linear” and “scripted”. The paradox of Rockstar games is that although they take place in open worlds, the missions within are very formulaic. The reason for this is that Rockstar wants to infuse each mission with a cinematic quality. It wants to dazzle you. And it does. It succeeds at what it wants to do, but does it deliver what gamers want? Are the token shootouts the only thing that separates Red Dead Redemption 2 from being a movie? There’s no room within missions to solve a given problem with any creativity. But if that kind of freedom is what you as a gamer want, you’re probably better suited for something like Bloodborne or Doom. And I don’t mean that in a sassy way- what I’m saying is that if you’re looking for organic, open-ended gameplay challenges, you won’t find it here.

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So we have this disconnect between the narrative and the sandbox, which makes Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like two different experiences walled off from one another. Neither half informs the other. The main story consists of a sequence of set pieces which are scripted but nonetheless absorbing and fun. The sandbox, on the other hand, is both beautiful and decadent. What I mean by a word like decadent is that it’s impressive to behold, but exists largely to be admired. It’s not the Elder Scrolls sandbox where you can travel in any direction and stumble across a hidden kingdom of mole-people or a town of lumberjacks with a naughty little secret. And neither is it the Witcher 3 sandbox, where the world is filled with rich, standalone side quests that are as detailed and engaging as the main story itself. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 has a little side content in the form of its Stranger encounters, but they’re each very short and really only exist to enhance the sense of immersion. The actual gameplay involved in the Stranger encounters is tantamount to a tutorial- herding wild horses or shooting a bottle off of a guy’s head for a laugh. So what can you do in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 other than admire it? The organic, repeatable sandbox elements involve being able to play poker in a saloon, go fishing on a lake, hunt wild game through the mountains, rustle cattle across a prairie, and so forth. You can rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains. All of these prove more challenging endeavors than the missions of the main story. But there is no real reward in accomplishing them- each activity exists for its own sake. To me, the open world sandbox half of the game is best described as a Wild West simulator. It all comes back to immersion. It allows you to simulate life as a cowboy, and you can do everything from starting brawls in a saloon to milking cows in a barn.

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My last criticism of the game is one of believability. Although the game is visually realistic- for instance if you fall over in the mud, only the part of you that hits the ground will be muddy- the events and behaviors therein don’t necessarily evoke the same verisimilitude. For example, the outlaw gang you’re a part of is comprised of a couple dozen people, each of them superbly characterized and well-rounded. However, every other gang in the game is composed of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of generic redshirts, most notably the O’Driscolls- who are meant to be a mirror image of the Van der Linde Gang despite being at least ten times the size of their rivals. I guess it’s kind of like it was in GTA, where you’d end up in a shootout with about 50 gangbangers in an abandoned warehouse, and you’d think “If this actually happened, it would be the biggest massacre in US history” and yet the world doesn’t react to this shocking episode of casual violence. But this didn’t bother me so much in GTA because the Grand Theft Auto series isn’t really meant to be taken seriously. The Red Dead franchise is. GTA might be Rockstar’s mainstream moneymaker, but it’s the Red Dead series that stands tall as the pinnacle of the developer’s artistic genius, and its greatest achievement. And it is a tough criticism for me to make, because without these shootouts, Red Dead Redemption 2 would pretty much just be an interactive movie. It breaks my immersion when I see a small cattle town so faithfully reconstructed with historical authenticity suddenly muster up a defense of 50 deputies that all appear at a moment’s notice behind every covered position and strategic balcony to shoot me from every angle. But even though it’s unbelievable, it’s still damn good fun.

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As I said earlier, the combat is simple and feels like it’s from a game made 15 years ago. But it is still thoroughly enjoyable. The weapons feel great and the Dead-Eye system is a hoot. And given how excellent the story is, the simplicity of the combat in conjunction with the context of the narrative (and the fantastic musical score) makes shootouts feel heroic and badass. The story and the characters are so well-written that I’m going to give them their own separate post in a few days’ time. I’ll also be covering many spoilers, so make sure you complete the epilogue before you read it.

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To conclude, I have to think about where Red Dead Redemption 2 stands in my top 10 games of all time. That alone should tell you that I adore this title. The main story I can confidently say is the finest I’ve ever experienced in a game. The characters are so nuanced and their inner journeys are so engrossing. Perhaps best of all is the dialogue. Not only does it sound authentic, but what they say is interesting and original. For me, the story, characters, and themes are superior to that of The Witcher 3. However, The Witcher 3 remains above Red Dead Redemption 2 in my power rankings because it excels in all aspects of its content, which the latter does not. The Witcher 3 has fantastic combat, gameplay variety, side content, and replay value. At the moment, Red Dead Redemption 2 looks the odds-on favorite to scoop most of 2018’s Game of the Year awards. It’s seen almost universal praise from critics. And I do think this praise is deserved. Even though it falls short of perfection, I am enjoying the success it is receiving. I do think it deserves the title of 2018’s Game of the Year because nothing else comes close to its emotional impact or the scope of its vision. It’s a game that concentrates and excels very heavily in one area, and as such isn’t for everyone. But I want to see more developers take this approach. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a game that was created according to an artist’s vision, rather than pandering to some focus-group-tested, mass-market-appeal anodyne spunk-bucket. It puts to shame cynical AAA yearly-releases whose content is designed around consumer exploitation and income projections, and shows us that quality games are by no means a thing of the past. Ultimately, the nature of the market ensures that real quality will always be in demand- whereas shoddy business practices can only remain economically viable for so long.

How Detroit: Become Human Put an End to my Gaming Slump

I was hesitant about the idea that Detroit: Become Human would be the title that broke my gaming slump. I’m also hesitant to spend full price on any AAA game these days- especially something I’m not familiar with. The rhetoric from my most trusted reviewers (“wildcard” Youtubers Yahtzee Croshaw, Jim Sterling, & Angry Joe) was that David Cage games were pretentious orgies of QTE’s, resembling laughably-bad interactive movies rather than actual games. And the opinions of reviewers I tend to regard with suspicion (IGN & Gamespot) were that Cage’s body of work represented not only his staggering genius, but an entirely unique and innovative approach to storytelling. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle, I thought. Or perhaps it all depends on the kind of gamer you are. I knew right off the bat that I’d be sympathetic to Cage’s mission statement, since I always give a greater importance to story than to gameplay.

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I kept an eye on the promotional footage of Detroit up until its release and I was very impressed by its visuals. The game came out and I waited for the reviews. I just needed to hear that the story was decent. Androids were in vogue with me at the time, and it may just have been my joyful experiences of Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld season 2 that sealed the deal. I needed a rich world to get lost in. At the time I had no real outlet for escapism in my life. And I hadn’t played a game I really enjoyed since Horizon: Zero Dawn was released over a year ago.

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It seems strange that one could have a gaming “slump”, but I honestly can’t think of any other word for it. In 2016 I was staying up all hours of the night pursuing the platinum trophy for Fallout 4. My PS4 was the material embodiment of my laziness. I spent so much time running around the Commonwealth chopping off the heads of Gunners and Super Mutants with my electrified Chinese Officer’s Sword “Brunhilde” that the irradiated wasteland felt more real to me than my actual life. But fast-forward a year to mid-2017 and I’m unable to play anything for more than 20 minutes. I was bored of gaming, if you can believe it. I tried Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it was probably the worst gaming experience of my life. I’ve never felt so let down by a game. I then tried Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and that left me somewhat lukewarm. I wondered if I was truly falling out of love with video games or if I simply couldn’t find the right one to play.

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I took a chance on Detroit: Become Human and my overall verdict is a pretty positive one. Is it a game so close to my heart that I end up taking it more seriously than my career prospects and personal hygiene? No. Unlike The Witcher 3 and Bioshock: Infinite, I won’t take it personally if you don’t like it. But did Detroit: Become Human restore my interest in gaming? Yes.

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There are a number of things this game executes very well. The musical score is excellent; each of the three playable characters has their own soundtrack, and each piece of music has a distinctive tone reflective of that character’s narrative. As I’m writing this review I’m listening to the moody cyberpunk-noir music composed by Nima Fakhrara for Connor’s storyline.

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The visuals for this game are also excellent- and on a number of levels. The artistic design depicts a Detroit that is both grittily-familiar and slickly-futuristic, and the raw imaginative power of the concept art is rendered beautifully in the game’s state of the art graphics. Every location feels unique and interesting- and more than that- like a place that is lived in. This is achieved by little details about the way everyday things function being given special attention. For instance, the blank-faced androids crowded in at the back of the buses, the way the signal on their foreheads changes color based on their stress level, the maintenance drones vacuuming the office carpets, the monorails, the articles on android basketball, and the CyberLife emporiums that look like a cross between an Apple Store and a 19th century slave auction. Perhaps my favorite locale was the urban farm you have to chase a deviant android through during “The Nest” chapter.

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In addition to the stunning environments, the facial animations in the game are as good as any you will see today. I haven’t been this impressed by a game’s use of motion-capture acting since L.A Noire back in 2011.

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So what do we know so far? We’ve established that the game is a success on a technical and artistic level. But what of the gameplay? Most of the game consists of making dialogue choices TellTale-style and executing a sequence of Quick-Time Events. The story is entertaining, but not without its flaws. It brushes up on some complex themes- such as the nature of consciousness, whether or not a loving relationship can be established between a human and a robot, and the rising economic inequality brought about by mass unemployment- without really going deeper into those issues. The game misses the chance to say something original and profound as it seems more interested in pursuing a clumsy civil rights allegory. The story is definitely exciting, but it also has a tendency towards contrived melodrama. I enjoyed the creepy vignette where the player character has to escape a house of synthetic horrors, but found myself laughing at scenes where the humans started acting inexplicably cruel towards random androids for the sake of melodrama.

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For me, the biggest drawback of the game is its implementation of motion controls. I didn’t mind them so much in Until Dawn, where you had to keep the controller as still as possible or face getting discovered by Native American demons intent on repurposing your jawbone as a coat-hook. That to me replicated quite well the tension of having to hold your breath, and therefore enhanced immersion. However the motion controls in Detroit are wholly unnecessary. They don’t add anything to the experience and their inclusion actually detracts from the sense of immersion. They suddenly pop up in the game’s action sequences and are finicky as all hell. So if the controller doesn’t register you moving it down in exactly the way it wants you to, your favorite character gets shot in the forehead. That’s what happened to me at least. A character’s death carries no emotional weight when it occurs not because of the player’s choice, but because the player wasn’t quick and accurate enough. And I became even less enthusiastic when the game rolled out another model of the android for me to play instead, because all of the character development I had taken a part in was wiped clean.

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In conclusion, I think I can only recommend this game based on what you’re looking for. The pace is slow to begin with, and the chapter in which you spend most of your time washing dishes and cleaning up vomit will definitely put off some gamers. They’re probably necessary components of the narrative’s atmosphere and pacing, but I can’t blame you if you switch off the Playstation and start watching Blade Runner 2049 instead. You’ll find a far superior story there too. But for what it’s worth, Detroit: Become Human does have some exciting moments- enough that I enjoyed the game and wanted to play it when I wasn’t doing so. If what you’re looking for is fun gameplay, then perhaps this game isn’t for you. I would recommend this game to those that simply enjoy science fiction stories, and have at least some tolerance for QTE’s. As for me, this game ultimately broke the dry spell I had endured for over a year, and ended up being interesting and immersive enough that it occupied my thoughts when I wasn’t playing it.

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Cross-Atlantic Co-Op with my American Roommate – A Way Out

When I first saw footage of A Way Out at 2017’s e3 showcase, I was instantly sold on the idea. I felt like I had been waiting a long time for a unique, innovative and layered co-op experience tailor-made for my specific tastes. And having completed A Way Out, I’m still waiting for that experience. I guess that tells you my overall takeaway from the game already. In a way, nothing has really changed for me since I watched the gameplay demo at last year’s e3, except I’m thirty bucks poorer. I distinctly remember that I was drawn to the game on a conceptual level. I loved the idea of A Way Out, and I still do.

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I checked a few reviews before buying it, and if anything they reinforced my enthusiasm for the title. I knew this wasn’t going to be the game of a generation or anything like that. It’s a niche idea, with a thirty dollar price tag that’s justified. It’s not a AAA title. I just wanted assurances that it was a solid game that ran smoothly and wasn’t complete ass. The reviews I watched gave scores in the region of 7-8, which in the gaming industry is considered about average (for some reason). So I bought the game and pitched it to my on-and-off American roommate Aaron during a phone call.

This, I said, would be a cooperative game in the truest sense of the word. We’d be playing as two prison inmates trying to escape and then evading capture once on the run. It’s not a shooter, it’s a game with a narrative focus, so we’d be completely reliant on each other throughout the game. We would be making decisions that affected the story together, we’d be working together to beat tasks specifically designed to be two-man jobs, and we’d be strategizing together.

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I love prison dramas like the Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, and Escape from Alcatraz, so the setting was a massive draw for me. I loved the idea of a prison escape game, and it was a setting I thought perfect for co-op. One guy hiding in the laundry cart while the other pushes it, that kinda thing. It just looked different to anything else I’d seen.

What I found really intriguing, I told him, was that this game didn’t have a fixed genre. Most games are built around a specific way of playing. God of War is based around the solid core of its hack-n-slash combat, The Walking Dead its branching narratives, and Battlefield its first person shooting. By contrast, the developers of A Way Out decided to write the plot, and then utilize whatever style of gameplay best fitted a particular scene. I thought this was really interesting as a concept, and even if the game proceeded to shit all over itself, it could still- in my eyes- retain a sense of dignity at trying something new. Some missions had us racing cars, others had us stealthing around, and some scenes were 2D platformers.

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Best of all, I told Aaron, he wouldn’t have to pay a dime. I had bought the game and he would be able to experience the whole thing with me for free. The game gives you a token you can give to a mate.

We started with pretty high hopes. We laughed at the shower scene at the beginning where one of the playable characters gets hosed down like a disobedient chimp teetering on ironic self-awareness. We had fun talking to NPC’s in the prison yard and debating whether or not to be jerks. But as the game progressed, particularly once we left the prison, we realized that we were laughing at the game and not with it. The characters are shallow and utterly dull, the plot increases in ridiculousness all the way until a climactic twist that makes a mockery of the entire narrative, and you’d find more believable dialogue in an Evil Angel spoof of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The whole thing is infused with this 1980s-era B-movie camp, which didn’t sit too well with me considering the 80s is probably my least favorite decade of all time.

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I realized that for this game to really be a hit, it had to be well-written. The gameplay isn’t the draw here, because there is no central gameplay mechanic. Every chapter is a watered-down version of a different genre, the shooter sections about as polished and nuanced as a mid-90s CD-ROM title. I wondered if the game was trying to be intentionally silly, but if that’s the case it doesn’t really work. GTA: V had godawful writing, but no one cared because no one played it for the story- folks were there to rob banks, build their dream house, and reenact the Dukes of Hazzard on their way to the next meth lab. A Way Out doesn’t have that. And without any kind of immersion, we had little reason to play the game at all except to laugh at it.

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However, I’m still glad I played it. And like I said, my stance remains unchanged since I saw the e3 demo. A Way Out is a good idea- it’s just not executed all that well. There’s a lot of potential in the concept, and I hope someone tries something similar again. My favorite moment in the game was a sequence in which Aaron and I had to steer a canoe on a perilous, white-water cascade. It was the scene which best fulfilled what I wanted from a co-op experience- we had to communicate quickly and make split-second decisions about which side to paddle in order to avoid crashing into jagged rocks. It reminded me of the second video game I ever played- Wild Rapids for Playstation 1.

1.5

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In conclusion, I’m not sure I would recommend A Way Out like I did Vermintide, but I do want to stress that I don’t think the concept is inherently flawed. I just didn’t fall in love with this game the way I thought I would.