Mario Kart 8 is best described as one huge discrepancy. I know what the game’s appeal is supposed to be (or at least I can guess based on its marketing, its brand, the fan discourse surrounding it, etc.), but I don’t see any of that reflected in the game itself. What I see is a soulless shell of a game; something ready to lop off even the slightest hint of personality that it might better fit the mold of a theoretically perfect game. Moreover, it asks something very similar from its players, telling them that they can find the perfection they seek by abandoning themselves to the digital experience. The fact that Mario Kart 8 was able to pass as an obviously good game for a lot of people says more about the culture that video games have created than it says about this specific game’s merits and faults.
I’ve always been fascinated by how games writers and players talk about nostalgia. To be more specific, I’ve been fascinated with the unspoken assumptions and limits regarding how people discuss nostalgia. It’s a topic I could write at length about, but to choose just one facet, there’s what games try to accomplish through nostalgia. It’s almost never just a call back for its own sake. Nostalgia is a powerful and flexible tool developers can use to relate to the present through what the past has to offer. Read Only Memories and (especially) VA-11 Hall-A, for instance, are creative endeavors: they invoke nostalgia to explore alternatives to the world we currently live in.
Retro City Rampage, on the other hand, is far more insular in its use of nostalgia. It has absolutely zero interest in exploring alternatives or evaluating what value, if any, the objects of its nostalgia have in today’s world. If anything, the game shuts down inquiry like this by shrouding players in a veil of ignorance. It overwhelms them with action and spectacle, and then asks them to affirm whatever value it’s already read into its own past. Far from being creative, Retro City Rampage is a meaningless celebration of destruction for its own sake.
When I first started playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I ascribed all the problems I kept finding to “design by textbook syndrome.” By that, I mean the game is so focused on replicating the principles you’d learn about in a game design course right down to the letter that it never considers what it’s actually going to do with them. Hence you end up with a game that looks technically impressive, yet ultimately has very little to say. As accurate as these assumptions were, I eventually realized that they don’t sufficiently explain the thought processes the game does operate on, accidentally or not. After all, if Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse can somehow execute good game design principles without being a good game, shouldn’t that make us wonder what we think good game design means in the first place? Once I took these points into consideration, I arrived at a satisfying answer to what it was about the game that I didn’t like. Peel away all the flash and spectacle, and you find a game that not only trains us to participate in capitalist systems, but also to enjoy our participation in them.
I promise this is the last thing I’ll write about Kingdom Hearts for a while. After seeing all the great things the series does with Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep, it was only a matter of time before one of the games stumbled. Enter Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. It was a weak game when it first released on the DS, and its arrival on the PS3 hasn’t done it much better. Sure, the gameplay is no longer a problem, seeing how this version is just cinematics telling an abridged version of the story. However, the story itself has problems of its own. It lacks thematic development and can’t find any real, uncontrived tension. All it can really do is fill space.
I can’t help but notice that funny video games are experiencing a sort of renaissance. It used to be that the only games trying to be funny were open world games and that’s about it. But things have changed, and now, more games than ever are trying to make us laugh. Goat Simulator, Kerbal Space Program, Saints Row, Dungeons of Dredmor, Hatoful Boyfriend, most of Zeboyd’s catalog, etc.
The inevitable downside to all these good humor-games is a glut of humor-games that just don’t cut it. Enter Domestic Dog Simulator, that darling indie game from last year that only started gaining traction this year. It’s better to understand this not as a game, but as a series of tensions that shouldn’t exist: game vs. non-game, simulation vs. absurdism. The game can’t possibly juggle these forces in tandem, yet instead of settling on one, it flounders about with both.
I’m not going to mince words with you: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is the bleakest Kingdom Hearts game I’ve played to date. In some ways, it doesn’t even feel like a Kingdom Hearts game. Gone are the cheery messages of friendship as the all powerful, all redeeming force. What we get instead is a story with a touch of tragedy, its heroes destined to fail in the end. This is clear right from the beginning. Despite the cheery tunes, we only see our heroes either fighting each other, flailing helplessly as villainous figures make short work of them, or running away from an overpowering force. Toward the end, one of the hero’s’ eyes change to an angry gold as the song proclaims, “Nothing’s like before.”
Me and the Kingdom Hearts franchise have a history together. I’ve been forming memories with the series since it first saw release in 2002. I played the first game to the point of breaking the disc. I first discovered YouTube not through tired memes, but through strategies on how to beat Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts II. (It’s gliding, by the way. Just glide above him where he can’t hit you.) Despite all this, until I played the game on the PS3, I hadn’t touched the game in seven or eight years. And given how I’m not the same person I was seven or eight years ago (who is?), you’d expect my view of the game to change based on how I’ve changed in the intervening time.
Depression Quest might very well be one gaming’s more controversial titles from the past couple of years. Numerous gaming outlets have been singing its praises, even before its recent release on Steam. Meanwhile, non-press opinions have been notably more acerbic. Red thumbs litter Depression Quest’s Steam page, and the game currently holds a user score of 1.6 on Metacritic. Continue reading