Great Games

Great Games: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

928900Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
Platform: PlayStation, Xbox 360
Release Year: 1997

Symphony of the Night is a game of excess. Castlevania itself is already a cornucopia of creepy, cribbing heavily from Universal’s slate of horror icons and injecting as many public domain monsters as one can shake a stick at until the most baroque, Halloween game comes out the other end of an otherwise traditional NES action platformer. By the time Symphony of the Night (the tenth game in the series) came out, the world was ready to move on. 3D was in, and everything about the Castlevania formula had been hashed out. Fans would enjoy whipping through some stages, but nothing truly new was happening with the series.

It’s into this world that Symphony of the Night emerges, confident and light-footed, just as its protagonist rushes through the woods into Dracula’s eponymous castle(vania). This is Alucard, estranged son of Dracula, a moodier hero for a more dramatic game, illustrated with Ayami Kojima’s now iconic gothic bishonen style. The castle he finds himself in is not the stage-level format of most of the prior games, but instead a constant, contiguous world that cribs heavily from the structure of Nintendo’s Super Metroid. Not only do you have a map and save rooms, but you have RPG mechanics, as Alucard levels up and equips armor and weapons in his expanding skill set.

These familiar mechanical developments are in service of something much more profound, however. Utilizing 3D game console hardware to create a sprawling 2D game, Symphony of the Night grants Dracula’s castle an unknowable power in just how elaborate it is. Baroque only hints at the castle’s variety and impossible geometry, as marble hallways open up into vortexes of stormclouds, where statuary pulls back to reveal occult laborities, where the catacombs underneath the castle expand into lakes and tombs so deep your path is surrounded by roiling lava. Every part feels whole unto itself, but in concert the array of structures bolted onto each other feels impossible to navigate, dizzying in its chaos and fundamental inscrutability.

Which is the world that Alucard finds himself within. This lone, tragic hero enters his fathers house only to find that it is actually as complicated and strange as the idea of a mythical super-Dracula’s castle would evoke. Much has been made of Castlevania as a narrative of asserting identity and reclaiming sense of self over abuse or trauma, and that makes sense given the basic mechanics of the game. Alucard enters what should be his home, and he and the player find it challenging—in finding its many secrets, in fighting the foes within, in even surviving its spaces without harm—until you and Alucard both begin to slowly make headway against the evil forces and geometry in front of you.

Each square uncovered on the map is the reclaiming of the unknowable into the dominion of your understanding, each shortcut or hidden room a growing of your knowledge and a lessening of the power your enemy holds over you through secrets and illusion. Even the literal inversion of the castle, an entire second world where Alucard’s world is literally turned upside down, only slows you down until you begin to doggedly chip away at the edifice of this hurdle in pursuit of the inner peace Alucard seeks at the end of his journey.

Symphony of the Night is a game out of time depicting a world out of time, a strange amalgam of new technologies and old design to create something that sits in the middle of the history of game development as a testement to the power of both in unison. Later that year, Final Fantasy VII will emerge as the torchbearer to the future of cinematic 3D storytelling. On the SNES, the power of moving pixels and scaling sprites could only create a dynamic action version of Castlevania with rocking music, but it couldn’t give you the spaces of quiet and beauty and the insurmountable myriad obstructions with the assured, methodical atmosphere and melancholy of Symphony of the Night.

Of all the games people consider great games, Symphony of the Night exists firmly in one of the most important crossroads in the history of the medium. That it triumphs as the last bastion of an old generation of games speaks not just to the power of an ethos supposedly long-gone, but of the marriage of old and new, artistic and technological, in an elegant assertion of mastery over one’s powers and the forces of darkness that threaten to engulf us all.

Great Games: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

TWD gameDevelopers: TellTale Games
Platform: PC, iOS, Consoles
Release Year: 2012

Nobody expected The Walking Dead  to be good, let alone great. Telltale Games had made a name for themselves on Sam and Max, keeping the spirit of 90s Adventure Games alive with absurd comedy and item-combining puzzles. Yet The Walking Dead, the company’s 2012 flagship release, appeared to be not only lacking in their trademark humour, but by all accounts barely an adventure game. On top if this, it came out in 2012, at the peak of The Walking Dead’s cultural relevance and popularity. The games industry has a less than stellar track record when it comes to timely adaptations.

But while The Walking Dead could easily have taken the cheap and easy route, it instead chose to be one of the most honest and powerful adaptations in games. It begins as a more traditional adventure game with moments of impactful choice, taking cues from TellTale’s prior work, folding in dialogue and choice elements from Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. Yet throughout the course of the five episodes, the game evolves in front of you, shedding all unnecessary formal elements with each release, until an extraordinarily confident climax which lets go of difficult puzzles or world-changing choices entirely to hold itself up on emotional content alone.

That emotion is given such strength thanks to the game’s core humanity. The Walking Dead is an intensely empathetic and moral game, always managing to avoid stepping into nihlism despite the bleakness of its genre work. A character’s betrayal is treated as a desperate act by a human being still trying to do the right thing. A post-apocalypse society that purges the weak to maintain strength is immediately revealed as immediately and wholly irredeemable. The memorable moments in Lee and Clementine’s relationship are not those most shocking, but those most intimate.

And that is the great triumph of The Walking Dead, a runaway mainstream commercial success not in spite of, but because of its intimate construction. A game in which choice and consequence are used to neither empower or shock the player, but to add thematic richness for its own sake. A post-apocalyptic story which weaves values of empathy and and trust into its texture without indulging in easy provocation.

When the credits roll, it leaves you to consider the five traumatic episodes, the moments of overwhelming heartbreak and quiet triumph, and passes on its final moral. It’s impossible to stop the world from falling apart sometimes, but it’s always worth taking the time to try to build it back up, no matter how little time we may have.

Clementine will remember that.

Great Games: The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac

Developers: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Platform: Pbinding of isaac rebirthC
Release Year: 2011

The basement should be a place of fear for a kid Isaac’s age, but when Mom pulls a knife on him in the name of the Lord, he’s willing to take his chances. Flies, poop, and deformed infant familiars are apt partners for he who is already accustomed to daily horror. There’s a deceptive quality to Isaac’s setting. The basement is a world of impressive number of items, enemies, and secrets.

If games are only supposed to be uncomplicated fun, how does one explain the dark catharsis that’s taking place in the game’s story? With each discovery, a twisted shadow casts itself onto Isaac’s home life, with implications of neglect and abuse. There’s an unsettling distance between the satisfaction of collecting power-ups and battling monsters, even when those power ups are represented by things such as dirty syringes and the monsters are giant pinworms.

My fascination with Isaac has yet to wear off; one run is never like any other. The combination of variables ensures that while each run follows the Biblical archetype of it’s story, the specifics will always align in a novel configuration. This is a game thrives on secrets both mechanical and meta; an endless string of brutal challenges and obscure unlockables that drags you through an unknowable nightmare.

However, Isaac is a game of the wiki era, where knowledge can be achieved through research and permutation. Thus, it becomes an experience not just in learning how to do the things required, but in teaching yourself patterns and rituals in order to ensure survival. It becomes less frustrating to die over and over when you’ve gained a sense of the game’s quirks. The game asks you to open your mind towards the unexpected. Winning is a larger thing than defeating Mom, not only in the literal sense, but in a figurative one, as well. To begin to play Isaac, you must first let go of the expectation of control over myriad soul-crushing challenges the game will present to you.

The God in the Old Testament is indifferent to effort. He asks for unwavering devotion in the face of extreme suffering, without the comfort of explanation or the promise of mercy at the end of this struggle. The Binding of Isaac is a rare portrayal of the intricacies specific to faith, a juvenile skewering of a sacred tale that manages to empathize with the great energy required to communicate with spirituality. Through poop.

Great Games: Player 2

Player 2

player2Developer: Lydia Neon
Platform: PC
Release Year: 2013

Created in Twine, game making software which due to ease of access and use has become synonymous with intensely personal stories from those often marginalised (see Videogames For Humans), Player 2 is merely black text on a grey screen. At the outset it appears impersonal, almost robotic, as you are removed from the scene-setting sounds and images that could help set an atmosphere and placed in a situation in which you are alone with your thoughts.

The Player 2 in the title refers to anyone in your head: anyone you have had conflict with in the past. The game never asks you to choose a certain type of conflict, it could be something as small as an argument with a co-worker or something as large as decades of anger and resentment towards a parent who broke your childhood home. The conflict itself is irrelevant; what is relevant is the process. The object is not to win, lose or even end, but to understand and make what was overwhelming comprehensible again.

It’s able to be both vast or specific depending on who’s playing. It eschews any sense of narrative metaphor for direct and open communication with the player, leading them by the hand to a catharsis, rather than invoking it through a more traditional win state or storytelling climax.

Yet, whilst it may be called Player 2, what makes the game truly special to me is that it’s more accurately a three player game. It’s not just a spreadsheet of human psychology to help you process your thoughts and feelings, it’s an intimate expression of a worldview: the worldview that we can all get better, that none of us are beyond help. The game is acutely aware that the both artist and audience are living, breathing, loving beings in a moment of connection. The presentation may be bare, but the words themselves are so full of humanity that to play Player 2 is to feel less alone.

It’s so easy to forget, especially in games, that there exists humanity on both sides of the screen, and our relationship to a game can always be a conversation. But Player 2 removes all extraneous elements and strips itself to its very core, laying bare the necessity and power of art in the difficult act of simply getting by. Because we deserve to not be alone. Because we deserve to be loved. Because we deserve to be free.

Great Games: Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl

81ux19hIa5L._SL1500_Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl

Developer: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Year: 2013

Like most RPGs, Etrian Odyssey Untold has a bunch of side quests, and most of them are of little import outside of the hefty chunk of XP and item you get as a reward for completing them. So when I took a quest that challenged me to spend 5 real time days on floor 8 of the single, massive dungeon that comprises EOU’s gameplay, I hopped to it expecting little more than a boring back and forth shuffle, killing now-trivial enemies as I waited for the in game clock to tick towards my goal. What I found instead was the heart of this game, and of Etrian Odyssey in general. (more…)