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Dark Theories that Prove Spyro is a Horror Game

Playing Spyro: Reignited brought back a lot of happy memories from my childhood. It was a real treat to see it, not as I remembered it, but infused with this staggeringly-beautiful, Pixar-esque aesthetic that channeled the whimsy of the original games. But my experience of playing the remastered trilogy went beyond admiring its exceptional visuals and indulging my own nostalgia. Now I was playing the games as an adult, and I hadn’t planned on this sensation to be as strange as it indeed was.

Perspective counts for a lot. When you’re a kid, you’re too innocent to realize that Willy Wonka is obviously a serial killer. You’re not yet jaded enough to spot the Nazi imagery in The Lion King, and you’re not yet cynical enough to realize that Alice in Wonderland is one giant acid trip. And the less said about David Bowie’s fucking Labyrinth the better.

What I’m trying to say is that children’s stories come from the minds of adults, and often enough you can dissect them for adult themes. As far as the child is concerned, Winnie the Pooh is nothing more than a colorful story about animal friends and their wholesome adventures. But watch it as an adult and you will quickly realize that Eeyore’s craving the sweet release of death just as much as you are, you fucking loser.

Anyway, this was true for my experience of playing Spyro as an adult- particularly Ripto’s Rage. Sometimes the dark stuff you see is wholly intentional, other times it slips out of the creator’s subconscious, and sometimes it’s completely inferred by the consumer. I’ve always believed that art is a subjective and unique experience for each individual, that we each bring our own traumas to whatever piece of art we consume. The same song or painting will make two different people feel completely different emotions.

For what it’s worth, here are some ideas I had about Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage. Call them what you what; Creepypastas, fan theories, conspiracies, subliminal messages, or just a sad twat reading way too much into things- in a way they’re all valid.

 

  • There’s something disturbing about Sunny Beach…
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    When Spyro arrives at Sunny Beach he’s asked by the native Turtles to stop the Water Workers from abducting their babies. In the intro scene we observe the dastardly Water Workers packing the baby Turtles into shipping containers and hurrying them off to an unknown location. This is already disturbing enough- but it gets worse if you look deeper. The motivations for these abductions are never explicitly stated, but I think there are three equally likely possibilities. At first I figured either the Water Workers are running a sex trafficking ring or they’re eating the poor baby Turtles, each of which are pretty fucked up in their own way. The latter theory is backed up by the Master Chef side mission. The Water Workers are aided throughout the level by the Ducks. But there’s this one freakishly malformed Duck named Master Chef that’s boiling the baby Turtles alive and making soup out of them. As a child this whole quest scared me, and I’m still convinced that Master Chef is the most evil character in the Spyro universe. You can’t fight him or reason with him; you have to play his twisted game and try to save the little Turtles from kamikazying into the broth. However it’s unclear whether his motivations align with the Water Workers, since he’s a different species, and he might just be a random psycho that’s taking advantage of the surrounding chaos to fulfill his own twisted desires.
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    My third theory for the Water Workers’ motivations, however, is more sympathetic. As I progressed through the level, I wondered whether this really was a conflict of good versus evil. What if the events of Sunny Beach are much more morally-complex? Given the Water Workers’ name, and the fact that the Ducks all wear hardhats, I got the idea that what was really unfolding was a labor strike. The Ducks and the Water Workers might be treated as second class citizens in a classist society, in which they represent the proletariat and the Turtles the bourgeoisie. Perhaps the Water Workers are only kidnapping the baby turtles as a kind of ransom, holding them hostage until their demands for equality are met?
  • Gems are actually worthless…
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    Just looking at the world of Avalar I get the feeling it’s a post-scarcity anarchist society. There’s no evidence of publically-funded institutions like schools, hospitals or council estates. We know there are goods and products, but in Avalar everything pretty much runs on magic, so there’s no real economy that’s comparable to ours. You could point to the interdimensional portals as being the equivalent to a national railroad service, but since they’re based on magic, I can’t imagine they require any kind of upkeep. There’s a lot going on in Avalar but I don’t recall seeing any evidence of capitalism. The only person that really gives value to the gems is Moneybags. This got me thinking: maybe, just maybe, Moneybags is in fact a homeless crackpot, a local eccentric suffering from severe mental health issues that give him quixotic delusions of grandeur. He boasts of submarines and mansions but we never actually see him using or inhabiting them. Perhaps he found his tuxedo in a skip outside a supper club and goes about trying to convince everyone he’s actually this Dan Bilzerian style playboy, living a life of luxury and excess. Spyro never says anything when Moneybags demands gems, so I take that to mean that Spyro pities him, and that everyone goes along with Moneybag’s harmless fantasy, even when he’s annoying them by obstructing their path. In my opinion this theory fits with what we see in the game, and it actually reminds me of a few local eccentrics in my hometown. Just last week I was walking along a deserted road on my way home from work. A man was coming the other way. As he passed me, he kept imitating the revving of a far-off motorcycle, going “RUMMM-RA-RA-RA-RUMMMM-RA-RA-RA-RUM-RUM!” and I wondered if he thought he were a budgerigar trained to mimic the sounds he heard.
  • Where are all the humans?
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    We know that human beings exist in the Spyro universe, but they don’t have any sort of established presence. It’s interesting to me that humans are included, but only as a small footnote. They have no power, influence, or any kind of societal structure. Why include them at all? The few we meet seem unsettlingly out of place, and we are given the impression that they’ve stumbled into a world in which they don’t belong. Let’s look at the case of the twins Handel and Greta, who we meet in Scorch. Here we have two unsupervised children claiming to be secret agents, roaming around a hostile alien landscape that we know they are not native to. Because they are young children, they’re oblivious to the madness of the world around them and seem unaware that they don’t belong. The natives are trying to do horrific things to them, but to Handel and Greta it’s all part of their little game. It’s later revealed that they share this childish fantasy with Agent Zero- a character it’s heavily implied is suffering some kind of mental illness. We see Agent Zero in the Cloud Temples level, where he keeps boasting that he is a very important secret agent working on a highly classified mission. Like the twins, he seems completely oblivious to the carnage going on around him and just seems very out of place. If you manage to follow him without being spotted, you realize that there is no base of operations. It’s like when kids refer to a little glade in the woods as their “hideout” or something, and they don’t want anyone to know about it that isn’t part of their game. After you follow him, he even inducts you into the fantasy, believing that you must be part of his imaginary club. Agent Zero bears a striking resemblance to literary icons Lennie Small and Boo Radley, both of which suffer from non-specific mental disabilities. What isn’t clear however, is whether Agent Zero is a disabled character lost in a fantasy world (and due to his impairment, is less shocked by his surroundings), or if he was a normal person that, after prolonged exposure to the absolute madness of Avalar, was driven slowly insane.
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    The last human character we meet is the most mysterious- Basil the Explorer. He seems much more stable than the other three, which indicates that perhaps he has some knowledge of Avalar and has traveled there of his own free will, perhaps out of scientific curiosity. We find him stranded in Mystic Marsh after his jeep breaks down. Like the other humans we have covered, Basil seems disturbingly out of place. His broken vehicle reminded me of literary tropes involving characters becoming lost in fantasy realms- usually it’s a wardrobe or a rabbit hole, and sometimes it’s a Malaysian airplane. Imagine you’re a nauseatingly-British explorer with an oversized moustache that smells permanently of chip butties and imperialism, on safari in the African savannah. You’re driving along, when all of a sudden, imperceptibly, the environment around you changes. It’s subtle- the acacia trees now have treehouses connected by boardwalks, the water is now purple, and all the elephants and rhinos have snail shells on their backs. It’s like a nightmare you’re trying to wake up from. In fact, the Mystic Marsh level has a theme of insomnia and psychosis. It’s a world out of balance; the magic water fountain that lulls the animals into sleep is broken, and now they’re rampaging around the place in an orgy of violence, driven mad by the inability to rest. Or perhaps the fountain itself is evil, suppressing the animals into a state of constant drowsiness like some dystopian mind control drug, and now that they’re free, the animals want revenge on their mystic overlords. Either way, I think the animals and the fountain represent Basil’s desire to break free and return to the real world.
  • Avalar is in fact a post-apocalyptic wasteland…
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    This theory is sort of a continuation of the last one, but with a twist. Instead of the humans being lost voyageurs from another world, perhaps they are in fact the true natives of Avalar, but an apocalyptic event has diminished their numbers. This would also explain for Handel and Greta’s lack of adult supervision, Agent Zero’s mental illness, and Basil the Explorer’s strange isolation. It’s further supported by the fact that other locations throughout Avalar show signs of human influence but are devoid of a human presence. Let’s look at the robot societies for example. Metropolis is a city of robots that resembles something you might see in the real world. The robots are depicted wearing ties and standing in line for the bus. I got the feeling that something happened to the humans- either some kind of deadly plague or a violent robot uprising. Because let’s face it- someone had to build and program those robots. The creators likely fashioned them in their own image. Over in Robotica Farms, the robots even have hick accents and mimic human behavior- for instance one of them is chewing straw and wearing dungarees. Robots don’t need organic food products, and yet they are maintaining the farm anyway. It’s like the robots of Metropolis and Robotica Farms have replaced their human masters and are following the pre-programmed AI subroutines given to them. It’s creepy isn’t it? A world where robots think they are humans and go on imitating human life. My apocalypse theory is further evidenced by the Bone Builder and Ice Builder cultures. The natives of Skelos Badlands and Crystal Glacier are the same species, but are they human? At first I didn’t think they resembled the likes of Agent Zero and the other humans I mentioned in the last section. I figured they are most likely a separate species within the same genus, in a manner similar to which homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis share a common ancestor. The Bone Builders and Ice Builder peoples are squat pygmies with large chins and pug noses. They’re little potato-headed cavemen. But if they are in fact humans, it lends credence to the human apocalypse theory. Perhaps their species once achieved scientific greatness, and lived highly complex lives in cities like Metropolis. They built robots and genetically altered farmyard animals to become hyper-intelligent. Once their society collapsed, those that survived fell into a primitive, Stone Age existence. The diaspora of human survivors had a schism, with one tribe settling in the equatorial region of Avalar and the other heading for the polar ice caps. What do you think?
  • The Wizards of Cloud Temples are actually evil…
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    No level encapsulates the series’ universal contempt for animal rights quite like Cloud Temples. In the intro scene, the Wizards are petrifying goats into stone. The Warlocks attempt to free the animals by disarming the Wizards. This issue starts a civil war between the two factions (see: slavery in the United States circa 1860). A lot of books and movies aimed at children feature colorful cartoon animals. But in the case of Spyro– a game marketed toward children- the animals are invariably portrayed as the bad guys, and you are outright encouraged to slaughter them en masse. There’s something insidious and troubling about the developers’ design choices for the Wizards and Warlocks respectively. The Wizards are made to look friendly with more gentle and soothing colors and voices. The Warlocks are meant to be viewed as evil given their red-black color scheme, maniacal laughter, and sharp teeth. When Spyro arrives in Cloud Temples, he dutifully and enthusiastically murders every Warlock and every free-roaming animal in sight. This is the most clear example I can think of where the game has you fighting for the wrong side, because you’re essentially putting down a political coup so that the Wizards can maintain control of the realm and use their powers for their own sadistic games. It should be noted that the Warlocks never kill any Wizards. They simply disarm them so that they stop being jerks. Whereas the Wizards enlist you to murder the Warlocks in revenge.
  • Life in Avalar has no value whatsoever.
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    My final theory builds on from the last one in many ways. Avalar is not a world in which you want to live. It’s a world devoid of justice and civil rights, in which the only law is the law of the gun. Violence is so much a part of everyday life that its inhabitants are numb to it. When most games tackle the issue of violence- such as Spec Ops: The Line, Metro: Last Light, This War of Mine, and so on- the graphic bloodletting is reflected in an aesthetic that is suitably grim and bleak. But the fact that the violence in Spyro is offset by tones that are twee, cheerful, and bright, is somehow even more creepy. Grief and mourning don’t exist in Spyro’s world. Death is treated as something light-hearted and comedic. If you engulf an innocent sheep in flames, its eyes will be left hovering untouched in the air for a few seconds, blinking and dumbfounded. In the Skelos Badlands, Catbats toy with the Bone Builders, holding them in mid-air for several agonizing seconds before dropping them into seas of lava. Then they cackle with glee. In Aquaria Towers, the Water Workers (of child-catching fame) torture the native Sea Horses by draining their world of water and taunting them over it, presumably just for a laugh. In Magma Cone, when his mate gets unceremoniously killed by a falling boulder of molten rock, the faun is seen laughing. He accepts it as a part of the comic absurdity intrinsic to the world in which he lives. Like I said, there is no grieving in Avalar. Every misfortune is met with laughter. It’s a land of nightmarish absurdity and casual violence, set against a backdrop that’s surreal and dreamlike. What do you think? What elements of Spyro cause you sleepless nights? Comment your thoughts down below!
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Spyro: Reignited

My memories of playing the original Spyro games are some of the fondest of my childhood. When the news broke that the first three in the series were being remastered for the PS4, I was ecstatic. While the current-gen versions of Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite are gorgeous to behold, their remastering does feel a little premature. But bringing back old 3D platformers from the late 90s feels as fresh and exciting as if the games were new. It seems less like a cynical cash-grab and more of a gesture that’s rooted in passion for gaming. The Spyro games were rebuilt from scratch, and because they’re so old, the contrast between the original trilogy and the remastered one is breathtakingly jarring.

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I was delighted when my brother called me on his lunch break last November to disgruntledly tell me that he’d accidentally purchased two copies of Spyro: Reignited, and had decided to give me the extra copy for free. Tee hee.

I’d like to examine three things in this post:

  1. The quality and depth of the remake efforts
  2. How well the original games stand up after all this time
  3. My own gilded nostalgia

 

Spyro: The Dragon

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The first game in the series is the one I remembered the least. I’ve always associated it with vomit, because the last time I played it I was 9 years old, sitting cross-legged in my pajamas, and I had the sudden feeling that I ought to go to the bathroom. After feeling fine just a few seconds before, by the time I reached the toilet I puked everywhere. The whole thing was pretty traumatic at the time. I felt like I puked my entire body weight into that toilet. My throat was burning hot but my skin was trembling with cold. At one point my dad was like “Good Lord, there’s so much of it, it’s even coming out of his nose!” and it was like my entire insides were trying to escape me until all that remained was a dry and desolate husk.

For some reason I blamed the episode on the first Spyro game and vowed never to play it again as long as I lived. There was just something about the game that seemed to lack the charm of the other two. Anyway, it’s all important information, because I’m now 26 years old and I still haven’t thrown up since.

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The first thing that struck me about the game when I played it again in its remastered form was just how beautiful it was. The levels have so much more detail, depth, and texture. They’re as bright and colorful as a Pixar movie, and the swaying blades of grass, rippling castle flags, and cascading waterfalls are all imbued with this animate, living energy. I spent my first few minutes simply wandering around the hub world admiring the ambient sounds and smooth character animations. Just watching Spyro prancing around in such a fluid and crisp way made the whole experience feel fresh and whimsical.

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It was only when I entered one of the levels that I remembered why my younger self was so quick to dispense with the game. I quickly became bored- and I’d only just started playing the damn thing! There didn’t seem to be any sort of context for what was happening. None of the levels have any sense of narrative or personality. They each evoke some kind of time period, place, or culture from the real world, but they just feel shallow. They feel like movie sets rather than real places, and there is little variation between them beyond murdering every living creature in sight and unfreezing the dragons. As I progressed through the game, I became more and more tempted to give up and start playing Spyro 2. I was that bored. Each level felt like a chore, and I had no motivation to play except to finish it. The final boss fight in particular annoyed me. Gnasty Gnorc was the only thing giving the events of the game the slightest context, but he doesn’t say anything and just runs away from you. There are no checkpoints so when I died I had to go through the rigmarole of the whole thing again. It just felt poorly designed and lacking in the excitement and intensity of a final showdown.

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This might seem unfair given the technology available at the time, but I think it’s important to remember that one game shouldn’t be considered better than another by virtue of it being released earlier. Wolfenstein 3D is undoubtedly a more influential, innovative, and revolutionary shooter than Wolfenstein: The New Order, but no one can straight-facedly claim that it’s the better gaming experience. Spyro 1 established the central gameplay mechanics that would make the series a success, but beyond that, I found it a real slog.

 

Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage!

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To me, this will always be Gateway to Glimmer, which was the title given to the game’s European and Australian release in 1999. This was the first Spyro game I owned. Back in the day I would go to my friend’s house after Line Dancing on Friday nights and watch him play Spyro 3. I begged my dad to get the game for me. He couldn’t find it at the store, so he bought me Spyro 2 instead. The second game in the series is widely considered the best among fans and critics alike. It’s certainly my favorite in the franchise, and I realized upon playing the remastered version that almost all of my memories from the series came from this game in particular.

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As soon as I started playing Ripto’s Rage I felt immensely satisfied. Right off the bat we have firm context: an experiment in interdimensional travel goes tits-up and a megalomaniacal warlock with a raging hard-on for dragons is inadvertently summoned to the magical realm of Avalar. With the help of his semi-sentient dinosaur thralls, he proceeds to conquer Avalar and impose himself as dictator. The realm’s deposed government-in-exile, respectively a bipedal cheetah, a hyper-intelligent mole, and a sexually-frustrated fawn, decide that the most logical way to retake power is to summon a dragon to their world because Ripto hates them so much. I feel like this is a reckless move, because none of them have ever seen a dragon and the last time they pissed about with wormhole technology they opened up their realm to a cosmic invasion. They should be grateful they didn’t end up summoning fucking Smaug. I’d like to see how far Elora’s sass gets her when Alduin conjures a meteor storm and starts belching Gamma Rays at every living thing in sight.

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Luckily, they end up with Spyro. At first they seem disappointed not have gotten Draco as portrayed by Sean Connery, but as the fate of Avalar becomes increasingly dire, they hinge all their hopes of success on him, and it’s up to Spyro to reverse the coup d’état. The game begins, and at this point the player is invested. When I complained about the lack of narrative in the first game, I wasn’t thinking we needed something along the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo. It doesn’t need to be that complex- these games are aimed at kids after all. It just needs to have a little conflict and a dash of color in its cheeks. From the outset we have enough motivation to take down Ripto- he’s arrogant, snarky, cruel, and power-hungry. He’s tearing apart the harmony of this magical realm. By comparison, Gnasty Gnorc has about as much depth and personality as a tetherball with a smiley face drawn on it.

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But it’s not just the macro elements that make Ripto’s Rage stand out. Playing the game I got the feeling that every level had been carefully designed. For starters, there’s an intro cinematic that takes place every time you enter a portal. Each level has a conflict of some kind, and it’s up to you to solve it. Right at the beginning of the game you find yourself in a place called Glimmer. The land is populated by a race of sentient jerboas known as the Gemcutters. Not only does it have a native species, but it has a sense of life, commerce and industry too. The Gemcutters of Glimmer are renowned for their mining. However production comes to a halt when a hostile race of giant lizards shows up. At this point the Gemcutters enlist you as a kind of traveling pest control service, and you proceed to systematically exterminate every last one of them. A lot of levels follow this kind of pattern- each one begins with a cutscene that shows how the equilibrium is upended, and it’s up to you to restore the status quo. It never occurs to Spyro to solve the given problem using diplomacy, but I think I’ll save my thoughts on his morality for another post.

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The format of having us dip in and out of these self-contained stories works really well, and you find yourself motivated by the desire to check out the next cool environment and funky cast of characters that awaits you. The effort and attention afforded these levels is not just aesthetic however- it translates to gameplay too. As compared to the previous game in the series, there’s more variety on display. Each level has various optional challenges and side quests, calling upon you to swim, fly, ice-skate, chase, stealth, and puzzle-solve your way to success. You do everything from ride high-speed mining-carts around carelessly-laid boxes of TNT to herding cutesy bovine-elephant hybrids into a pen.

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The game is structured very well, and its three boss battles are excellent. They’re equal parts challenging and fun, as you utilize various creative power-ups via fast-paced gameplay to take down Ripto and his mates. Each encounter feels dramatic and significant, a feat achieved by the game’s teasing the bosses at earlier points in the narrative, building up to them with various steps and hoops in your way, and some appropriately climactic showdown music.

 

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

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This game’s an interesting one. A lot of our favorite characters return from Spyro 2, and the same sense of charm and personality is present in the game’s many cutscenes. But the game as a whole just smacks of trying too hard to emulate the success of its predecessor. It’s still fun, but it doesn’t feel all that original. Everything that worked well in Ripto’s Rage is carried over and ramped up to the point that it comes across as contrived. For instance, the characters of Spyro 2 added a real sense of humor and soul to the game that was missing in the first installment. The third entry in the series therefore massively expands this cast of characters and even lets you play as some of them. This isn’t an inherently bad idea, but it just isn’t executed that well. Sgt. Bird is a pain in the ass to maneuver, Bentley’s fat ass takes up the whole screen, and the monkey with the ray gun comes across as painfully bland- in both game design and personality. I thought Sheila’s jumping mechanics were fairly original and interesting, but none of her sections stood out as particularly exciting. You can even control Sparx in a series of Gauntlet-style dungeon-crawler missions, which I found utterly inane. None of it feels necessary. It seems like they’re just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.

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Another thing that worked well in Spyro 2 was its optional puzzles and mini games. Once again, the developers decided that this was an easy and fool-proof strategy for critical success and gave Year of the Dragon mini games up the ass. Some of them work, but a lot of them feel lazy and pointless. The skateboarding can be fun and the thief-chasing is as good as ever, but the overabundance (and varying quality) of these mini games just makes Year of the Dragon seem flabby and decadent. I’d rather they focused on just a few recurring mini games and gave them greater depth and more enjoyable controls.

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The main plot? It’s fine. I like the idea of this mysterious kingdom on the other side of the planet, whose natives have to reach the dragon world by burrowing into the earth and tunneling through until they pop out the other side. It’s kinda like The China Syndrome meets Alice in Wonderland meets Gears of War. Anyway, the ruler of this antipodean kingdom is a female tyrannosaurus with a rather threatening array of magical powers known only as the Sorceress. Quick aside- I find the image of a dinosaur wearing makeup and lipstick really unsettling. Anyway, the Sorceress sends her minions to the dragon world to steal all their eggs while they’re sleeping. It’s a pretty good plot device, meaning that Spyro is the only one who can travel to this strange new world to retrieve them since the tunnels are too small for the other dragons. It’s also interesting that the Sorceress has an army of bipedal rhinos at her command, which makes all the levels and hub worlds feel connected. This time you’re the outsider, and you’re up against the entire military apparatus of this kingdom. The Rhynocs are present throughout the various levels, acting as garrisons to oversee the many races they’ve subjugated and the many lands they’ve annexed. The bureaucracy is tantamount to the Roman Empire in a lot of ways. Of course, Spyro comes in and massacres them like the bloodthirsty revolutionary he is. Freedom fighter or terrorist? I honestly don’t know anymore. The fact he never even attempts to solve anything other than through violence started to alienate me. Sure, the Sorceress is a tyrannical despot and all that, but presumably the Rhynoc sentries are just doing their jobs, trying to get by in a cruel world, and can’t be held accountable for the atrocities of the wider system they’re a part of. Right? It’s hard to root for Spyro when he’s flat out goring Rhynocs that are surrendering to him.

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Overall, the third game is good but it tries too hard to emulate its predecessor and comes up short in that regard. The boss fights have none of the build-up and context of Spyro 2’s encounters, and each one feels like a shallow imitator of that game’s arena-with-power-ups model. The bosses themselves are introduced right before the fights, and their designs lack the simple yet effective tones of Crush and Gulp. I liked that there was a secondary villain in Bianca; her inclusion reminded me of Alora from Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Sadly though, you don’t get to bloodily rip her limbs off, which was a disappointment for me because I’d been thinking of nothing else ever since that time she boasted I’d never find the dragon eggs she’d hidden right as I could see one in the background over her shoulder.

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.

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.

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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.