Writing

A Reaction To FIFA 17’s Story Mode, or “Why I Miss Ace Combat, Damn It”

aaaThis year, FIFA has a story mode. It’s fine. The story is incredibly basic, the presentation is overwrought and draws on all of my least favourite trends in modern filmmaking, but it’s mostly competent and provides a nice structure to the game of Playing The Football for those of us unwilling to sell off our belongings and invest heavily in virtual trading cards. Fans of the genre. 7/10.

It’s nothing to write home about, much less an article about, but the entire time I played I couldn’t shake the feeling that this mode could be a lot better in the future, if only they’d learn some storytelling lessons from Ace Combat.

Ace Combat 6 is a masterclass in how to draw a narrative throughline through a game that has very little explicit narrative in its mission design. There are big moments that occur in missions (re-taking Gracemeria, the night-time stealth run, the final boss), but for the most part the missions involve loading a map and taking out the required number of targets until the bar fills and you can fly on home. The bulk of the narrative is delivered through cutscenes which follow civilian characters, placing your war into a wider human context, and in-mission dialogue, which place your individual actions within a single battle into a wider military context. You – Garuda 1 – are never given a name or voice, and your actions are rarely commented on beyond which army is winning the battle. The guiding principle of each and every narrative element is to make you feel as if you are part of something bigger.

FIFA 17: The Journey (yes, it’s really called that) is the exact opposite, in every single way. Major beats are delivered within cutscenes, but narrative texture is built through the commentary team within the match. If you play badly, the commentary team say you have been playing badly. If you have a fight with your friend, the commentary film say you have had a fight with your friend. If a team-mate scores, the commentary team… say the exact stock thing they say when anyone else scores. It belies an incredibly myopic worldview, prevalent within western AAA game design, where narrative is little more than a way to re-enforce the fact that the player has absoloute agency over the world. You do a thing, the game says “wow, they did a thing,” and this is known as immersion.

It’s a real shame, because the approach ultimately feels dishonest not just to the story but the concept of the game as a whole. Football is a team sport, and tying this to a narrative in which The Player rules supreme and their every action has consequence, makes about as much sense as West Brom beating Real Madrid. (Which they did. In their third game. In a packed stadium in Seattle.)

All that said, I’m glad that Sports Games are beginning to experiment with narrative. I’d play them a heck of a lot more if they just shoved a well written visual novel in there a la Dancing All Night. But given that they by far represent the most successful genre of game that isn’t centred around a combination of violence and individual acquisition, it would be a shame for their storytelling to fall into all the same, sad traps.

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The All Too Familiar Case Of Rebecca Thane

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Rebecca Thane has been here too long to put up with your shit. She hates the runners, so repelled by the economic injustice of the dominant system that they choose to live outside of it, but somehow actually fighting against it is just a tad too far. She’s watched as the rich and powerful have killed her friends without reproach, and she knows that no matter what she does, she can ever rival the blood on their hands. She is not here to object, or to protest, or to run. No, like all good revolutionaries, she is here to win.

Unsurprisingly, Rebecca Thane is a secondary villain in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. She is introduced angry, yelling at your boss Noah for refusing to do anything other than sit on the fence. She has a point, of course, but the anger is what matters here, a telltale sign that she could take things “too far,” whatever that means. Never does the game ask if anger and violence are perhaps reasonable responses to society-wide systemic violence, even while you’re kicking dudes off skyscrapers.

Instead, Rebecca Thane is another Daisy Fitzroy, another Marlene, another black woman doing the work of revolution because somebody has to, and ultimately condemned by the text for her efforts. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is another in a long line of games that wants to sell the idea of revolution and condemn the politics of it. The back of box tagline reads: “Fight Oppression. Claim Your Freedom,” the game opens with a text crawl saying “Citizens have been made willing slaves,” and Faith’s first act is to break free of mandatory corporate surveillance. Fight Oppression. Sign up for Origin today.

Six hours later, the game ends with a monologue where Faith proclaims that by stopping Kruger’s plan they’ve “started something.” They haven’t brought about revolution, but they’ve lit a spark, and finally people can start to fight back. Somewhere, Rebecca Thane is sadly shaking her head. Does all the work of her and her dead friends really amount to nothing? Maybe in twenty years, Faith will have grown tired of the moral high ground when it doesn’t do a damn thing to bring progress any closer. Maybe Faith’ll meet a young runner herself, disgusted with how angry and violent she’d allowed herself to become, and maybe that runner will break away and declare that after years of accepting oppression, they’ve finally started something.

Maybe.

On LEGO Games

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The LEGO games have always traded in parody, drawing upon popular iconography of a particular franchise and then heightening it for comic effect. However, their success comes not from the comedic undermining of the subject matter, but the distillation of its subject matter to the core values. LEGO Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy‘s silent narrative captures the adventure, tone and thematic conceit of Star Wars arguably better than the movies on which it is based.

Traveler’s Tales have kept this up for over a decade now, taking an approach to adaptation which centers on identifying the essence of the source material and applying it to the established core design. Nowhere is this more obvious than LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, a far more effective way to understand the appeal of comic books the movies they draw from so regularly. The game revels in its characters, bouncing them off of each other in every puzzle and every cutscene, showcasing a incoherent cliff-notes Marvel Universe which embraces the ludicrous joy of its conceit rather than to (as is the trend in more mainstream adaptations) grapple with the logistics of its existence.

Whilst this element of the LEGO games is fairly widely understood, what struck me when playing is how this approach to adaptation remained true in terms of the game’s more formal design. In addition to adapting and distilling a fictional universe, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is an adaptation and distillation of modern video games, with how it frames its open world, highly scripted level design, and a trillion-and-three collectibles.

It isn’t that the game has these elements – almost every AAA game contains one or more of them these days – but that LEGO presents them nakedly, without the need to burden itself with context. The open world makes no attempt to  be anything other than a constructed sandbox in which you may destroy and explore; even superheroes need to carjack every once in a while. The scripted level design is merely a series of explicitly colour-coded signs onto which you must move the correct character, ad infinitum. You are not collecting coins and completing side-missions to improve the effectiveness of your weapons, or your gang, or your war effort, you are doing it because the number is low and dangit, the number should be higher.

These design techniques are no less effective than in an Assassin’s Creed, or a Destiny, or a [insert 75% of recent AAA Games here], but they do feel a great deal less exploitative. A LEGO game is a passive experience of consumption, wherein you follow simple instructions in order to get more things, which unlock more simple instructions to follow. But that treadmill stands honest and alone, rather than to motivate the player through a narrative, or to trap the player inside a marketplace.

Just as LEGO games serve as an accessible introduction to the appeal of their chosen narrative source material, so too do they serve as an accessible introduction to the appeal of their formal source material. Alone, neither of these elements explains the series’ cultural staying power, but putting them together makes it a lot easier to understand just why the LEGO games have managed to be one of the last kids’ games standing on consoles.

Abnormal Mapping 48: Trauma Babies

MGSV

Just another day in a podcast without end…
ABNORMAL MAPPING

At last, the time has come. Just under a year ago, I started playing the Metal Gear games, and now, 42 articles and 5 podcasts later, the journey is complete. I hope you have enjoyed the ride, and if you’re new, then feel free to come along on this quest anytime. For this final episode, we’re discussing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the honest-swear-to-god-for-real final game in the Metal Gear Solid Trilogy. Come on in for a chat on trauma and colonialism, exploitation and capitalism, and most importatly, The Life and Times of Punished “Venom” Snake.

I am joined in this final episode by @woundww, a friend and writer for the Arcade Review – currently on Kickstarter! – many thanks to them for smart insights throughout.

Fair Warning: There are a couple audio issues in the podcast! Nothing too bad; a little echo, some birds in the background, but I thought I’d give a heads up nonetheless! Enjoy!

Things Discussed

Metals Gear 1 – V

Music This Episode
Heres To You by Joan Baez
Quiet’s Theme by Akihiro Honda, Ludvig Forrsell, and Stefanie Joosten
Nuclear by Mike Oldfield

Abnormal Mapping 46: The Perfect John Cena Anime

Cena Boss

War has changed. In the penultimate podcast, Jackson reaches the ultimate, final ending of the Metal Gear franchise, just over half-way through the number of Metal Gear games. Don’t worry if you don’t understand, we’re here to guide you through on this Nanomachine Odyssey!

My guest for this episode is Austin Howe, Freelancer around the internet and found often on Critical Switch. They’re also on twitter!

You can get our podcast on iTunes, on Stitcher, or you can download it directly by clicking here.

Things Discussed: Metals Gear 1-4, Peace Walker, Rising, John Cena’s Favourite Anime, Final Fantasy VIII

Music This Episode
Love Theme by Nobuko Toda & Jackie Presti
Father and Son by Harry Gregson-Williams
Metal Gear Saga by Harry Gregson-Williams

Abnormal Mapping 44: The Mr Show of Videogames

SNAKE

Emerging from the wreckage of the Big Shell, Jackson travels through time to meet Cameron Kunzelman in the depths of the russian jungle, on a secret mission to stop a tank which can go really fast. In this third entry into the Metal Gear podcasts, Cameron and Jackson drill into the big questions: who does Snake kiss? Is it possible to make an anti-war War Game? And is Metal Gear even that ridiculous at all?

This is a fantastic episode and I hope you can take the time to give it a listen! Big, big thanks to Cameron for stopping by, you can find their writing at This Cage Is Worms, Paste and Twitter, their games here or on Steam, and a variety of Youtube fun stuff, well, on Youtube.

You can get our podcast on iTunes, on Stitcher, or you can download it directly by clicking here.

Things discussed: Metals Gear 1-5, Shigeru Miyamoto, Final Fantasy VII, Leigh Alexander on MGSV

Music This Episode
Snake Eater by Norihiko Hibino & Cynthia Harrell
Fanfare (FFVII) by Nobuo Uematsu
Way To Fall by Starsailor

Abnormal Mapping 42: Mapping’s Memetic Legacy

Raiden

After conquering the base of Shadow Moses, Jackson continued on to Big Shell, accompanied this time by none other than the fantastic Heather Alexandra! This episode is an in-depth critical discussion on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where we talk about (among other things) the game’s commentary on player and player character agency, the societal implications of The Patriots, and the varying quality of the members of that poor Emmerich Family.

I’m incredibly proud of this discussion, so if you’re at all interested in critical discussions on Metal Gear then you should definitely have a listen, I think it’s an intresting conversation about a really dense game. This episode couldn’t have been made without special guest Heather Alexandra, whose writing can be found on her website and you should also follow her on twitter!

You can get our podcast on iTunes, on Stitcher, or you can download it directly by clicking here+.

Things discussed: Metals Gear 1-5, Driving Off The Map, Metal Gear Rising

Music This Episode
Metal Gear Solid Main Theme by TAPPY & Harry Gregson-Williams
Fortune by Norihiko Hibino
Can’t Say Goodbye To Yesterday by Rika Muranaka, Carla White

Expand: Belonging

This is a companion piece to this month’s Game Club, a write-up on my experience with Expand by Chris Johnson. There are spoilers here, and it’s a great game, so I definitely recommend you play it before reading!

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I don’t belong here.

This place is foreign, its edges wrong, moving me more than I can move myself. There are no corners for me to find, no crevaces in which I can hide, no opportunity to feel as if I am somewhere I am meant to be.

Before, I had barely stopped to consider my body. It was me, I was it, we existed in this balance where my thoughts and its actions were perfectly aligned. Now I could not be more aware of this thing, this thing that is me, this thing that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t change.

I need more space. I need air, I need time, I need to finally breathe once more. As I jerk forward, I feel the walls brush against me, reminding me of how close they are and will be, of how no matter how smooth I can trick myself into being, they will always be there waiting to catch me, to push me, to guide me along. I can see the exit closing ahead of me, I can see these walls have left me behind and I know, I know that it is too late –

Everything returns to how it was before. The world rotates not around me, but towards me, moving itself to accommodate my failure. I push forward, for the shifting walls allow no way to return, and this time they close behind me. I start to glide, shifting my weight from one side to the other, the walls keeping me on track, pushing me further and further into unfamiliar lands.

And then, I lose the walls. All around they start to turn red, no longer ambivalent, and they begin their attack. This place wants rid of me far more than I want rid of it, it wishes me broken, stuck and unable to take anymore. It wants this story to remain unfinished, it wants to prove for once and for all that it is strong enough to beat me, it wants me to admit it.

No. I refuse.

I ask my body to glide, my body agrees, and together we move through the gaps in the space that were built just for us. The world shifts, grows and shrinks, moves and stops, changes upon our command. Where once it closed the path on our approach, now it opens. Even now, as its anger grows, a tidal wave of blood red making relentless chase, doors reveal themselves before it can make contact.

Ahead, I see the final clearing. It comes closer and farther all at once, as I drive my body forward on this endless straight line, allowing myself to believe that maybe I will escape. I can feel the heat of the world behind me, I can feel the air ahead, and I know that whatever happens I can’t stop. I am on this road until the end, me and my body, my body and these walls, these walls and this anger; everything in conflict yet all guiding me towards one inevitable ending.

I’m tired. I haven’t stopped moving in so long, my body has done so much that it wasn’t designed for, we’ve done more than we ever thought we could. Just one more push, just one more push, one more…

Silence. I couldn’t remember what silence felt like, but it all comes rushing back as the walls slip away and I am once more free. I look around me, searching for some kind of sign as to what lies ahead, and find no indication that anything lies anywhere at all. I can move at will, my body at last in line with the axis of the world. Is there anything waiting for me outside the lines? Can’t I stay here, in the light, for a second longer?

Oh god.

I don’t belong here.

Abnormal Mapping 40: Brother!!!

Liquid

With the completion of the Metal Gear diaries, Jackson is finally free from this franchise for the rest of time… or so he thought. Instead, he’s pulled back in to a series of mid-month podcasts here on Abnormal Mapping where he talks to different guests about the various games in the series to highlight and explore multiple perspectives. For the first one, he’s joined by Corey Milne, an Irish Games Critic who wants nothing more than to hear Liquid Snake, with all the vocal might he can muster, utter the magic word: B R O T H E R

Corey’s writing can be found on his website and you can also follow him on twitter!

You can get our podcast on iTunes, on Stitcher, or you can download it directly by clicking here.

Things discussed: Metals Gear 1-4, Driving Off The Map, Spec Ops The Line

Music This Episode
The Best is Yet To Come by Rika Muranaka & Aoife Ní Fhearraigh
Encounter by TAPPY
Metal Gear Solid Theme by TAPPY

OASES: Tragedy Reclaimed

Oases

OASES is such a simple, beautiful game. You control a plane transported to another world, engines kaput and steering lost, sucked into a black hole and whisked away forever more. There are unknowable structures below you, and a majestic neon sky above. To move, you must accept that you cannot turn level anymore, and must angle your plane softly and explore this new world around you. It’s soothing, haunting, and as the music reaches a climax and you realise it won’t loop around again, oh so fleeting.

The story of OASES is that of a tragedy, of a plane crashing in Algeria, carrying a man who was yet to meet his unborn son. But in the act of playing, that tragedy is rejected, replaced with an almost certainly false narrative of escape, told purely through the skies and sights of an unknown world. It’s a celebration of the unknown, a defiant choice to imagine death as something other than painful, simply because we can.

Our lives are full of sad stories unfinished, where we can fill in the blanks and assume the truth. But whenever there’s doubt, there’s a better world that we’d like to believe in, and if we’re capable of imagining for a while, we can go there too.


OASES can be played on itch.io, and is a game from Armel Gibson & Dziff with music from Calum Bowen.