Decoding Bloodborne’s Narrative

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*** This article contains spoilers ***

Yharnam is the home of blood ministration; you need only unravel its mystery.”

These lines simultaneously introduce the player to the depraved land of Yharnam and lay down the game’s gambit: to uncover the mystery of what scourge has plagued the inhabitants of this world.

As any veteran player of Bloodborne would agree, the task of unravelling the secrets of this world requires patience, resilience and a forensic eye for detail; in addition to a modicum of imagination for storytelling – the game doesn’t hold the player’s hand in putting the pieces of the narrative puzzle together and leaves many questions to the individual to answer for themselves.

So, where do we begin? The player wakes on an operating table in Iosefka’s Clinic – our entry point into Yharnam – a city obsessed with blood. From here, the player weaves doggedly through inhospitable landscapes, hordes of beasts and hunters in order to delve into the nightmare of Bloodborne and discover the mania surrounding the elsuive Great Ones.

Stephen Rhodes has written an excellent piece on Bloodborne’s narrative, Fear the Old Blood: A Look at the Narrative of Bloodborne and deftly summarises core aspects of the game’s lore. I would recommend reading this to brush up on some of the game’s lore as I will not be exploring it in-depth in this post.

In essence, Yharnam’s fascination with blood stems from the discovery of the Great Ones, a Lovecraftian species of extraterrestrials. The scholars at Byrgenwerth sought to understand and harness their “godly” powers in order heal and evolve through blood ministration.

However, there was a rift within the college between Master Willem and Laurence over the transfusing of a Great One’s blood with a mortal’s. “Fear the old blood” was Willem’s warning to Laurence before he abandoned Byrgenwerth to found the Healing Church.

From this point, it seems that Laurence and his associates’ tampering with the blood of the Great Ones was responsible for beckoning the Moon Presence as well as catalysing the followers of the church into beast-hood. Indeed, we encounter Laurence, the First Vicar, in the Hunter’s Nightmare, now a grotesque flaming beast – the product of transfusing his blood with that of the Great Ones.

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A clue to Laurence’s failed tampering with the blood of the Great Ones

The work of the Healing Church continued to spread through Yharnam with the practice of blood ministration which promised evolution to the state of a Great One. However, Yharnamites exposed to this process, such as Oeden and his followers who supped this “precious blood” did so with dire repercussions.

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The excess of blood ministration turned dreams into nightmares

Lovecraftian Epistemology

When we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold” (H. P. Lovecraft, in note to the editor of Weird Tales)

Such is the fate of those who took part in blood ministration. Through their “excesses” they mutated into savage beasts, now pursued by the Hunters whenever the Hunt arises. While Laurence succumbed to beast-hood, Master Willem maintained his pursuit of knowledge of the Great Ones – seeking an understanding of the Great Ones rather than striving to become one.

Bloodborne contains ubiquitous references to eyes. It is Micolash, Host of the Nightmare, who prays to the Great One, Kos to “grant us eyes”.  Eyes and seeing is conflated with Insight: an in-game mechanic which alters the player’s perception of the world as they gain more of it.

There is an almost literal association with sight and knowledge in the game, hence Micolash seeks eye like the mighty Rom, a monstrous arachnid which occupies Moonside Lake near Byrgenwerth.

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The Vacuous Rom – Master Willem’s great secret

The pursuit of forbidden knowledge is a familiar tenet in Lovecraft’s oeuvre, where the efforts of humans to understand the wider cosmos is followed by regret or descent into madness at what they have uncovered.

The efforts of the Healing Church and Byrgenwerth scholars to come to a true understanding of these ancient gods of the cosmos ended in a Promethean catastrophe. Their will to power and thirst for knowledge was perverted and corrupted.

One of the most compelling aspects of Bloodborne’s gameplay and narrative structure is that it compels the player to undertake a similar journey to uncover the fabled secrets of blood ministrations and the Great Ones.

The game itself embodies its Lovecraftian narrative themes of forbidden knowledge and the quest for understanding leading to regret, destruction or insanity. It is noteworthy that if the player collects the umbilical cords and defeats the Moon Presence, then they themselves become a Great One and so the journey from understanding to divine evolution is complete.

Decoding Bloodborne’s Narrative

It is this investigative role that the player takes on to uncover the mysteries of Bloodborne that makes for a compelling narrative. Rather than being relayed overtly through linear progression, the game instead focuses on the minutiae of the world: descriptions of items, conversations with other inhabitants and oblique clues left behind as a means to decoding the narrative.

I have included some of these enigmatic clues in the screenshots above and in references to conversations between the player and other dwellers of Bloodborne’s bleak landscape. A notable instance of this opaque narrative style is the game’s singular hint to unlocking its secret ending:

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The cryptic clue to the game’s secret ending

In order to confront the Moon Presence, the player must locate 3 thirds of an umbilical cord and consume them before defeating Gehrman, the First Hunter. It is not possible to intuit the meaning of the message on first reading and I believe that the game warrants numerous playthroughs to fully grasp the depths of its lore.

However, it is this experience of putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle which makes the game so much more rewarding. You can of course progress through the game without pause to examine your interactions or surroundings, but to do so would hinder your enjoyment and appreciation of what FromSoftware have crafted.

It is far more gratifying to emulate the scholars of Byrgenwerth and excavate this gothic world of beasts and gods to come to a fuller understanding of the Great Ones, Yharnam, the Hunt and the dark art of blood ministration. As we are instructed, or indeed warned, from the beginning: “you need only unravel its mystery.”

I would love to hear your experiences of Bloodborne. Did you enjoy the narrative style? How do you feel it compares with other Souls games? As ever, please leave your comments below. Thanks!

Crash and Me: My First Love of Video Games

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That pesky bandicoot!

Picture the scene: a six year old boy, impatient, furiously scribbling away at his Maths homework, eager to finish the last of his additions and subtractions, so that he can play that game with a shorts-wearing bandicoot, battling against a mad scientist in an attempt to thwart his plans for world domination.

That six year old boy is, of course, me and the game in question is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot. The picture I’ve painted is one of a boy developing his love of video games, that same love that’s inspired me to create this blog. I’m sure anyone reading this post has come here because you too have a deep love of video games and lately, I’ve been thinking – where did it all begin?

My love of gaming began before I owned a console of my own. I have some very early memories of playing the Sega Mega Drive and some PC games, but it was too early for me to really appreciate the thrill gaming can offer – of the chance to inhabit a rich, vibrant world full of weird and strange characters.

When I reached primary school, friends and classmates talked excitedly about this console called the PlayStation. It was new, it was exciting, and I knew I just had to have one. Unfortunately, pleading with my parents didn’t work; fortunately, my Mum’s friend owned one and, as a reward for doing my homework, I was began my first real foray into the enchanting world of video games.

The first time the PlayStation was brought round to my house, I’d been working on some Maths homework for the next day. When this curious little grey box was brought out, I stepped it up a gear, finishing sums with frantic excitement, desperate to finally play this world-creating machine my friends had been talking about.

When I was done, the PlayStation was hooked up to the TV and Crash Bandicoot was booted up. This was something different. This was beyond those comparatively primitive Sega Mega Drive games like the Lion King. This was special.

I remember Crash’s iconic, funky tribal music starting up and getting my first introduction to that crate-smashing bandicoot, comically colliding into the camera of the title screen. I hit “Start” and finally got my first experience of playing a PS1 game.

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Wow, still gets me feeling nostalgic!

Crash will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first game that comes to mind when I think about childhood gaming. It’s also the perfect kid’s game. I’d say it’s quintessential for the ‘90s gamer. The maniacal scientist, the exotic island locale, the cute, quirky protagonist, it was all there – the recipe for a childhood classic.

The graphics were bold and beautiful, Crash was instantly loveable, and the levels were seriously entertaining, with a mix of beautiful beachside locales, Aztec ruins and more bizarre sections where Crash rides a hog. Weird and wonderful enemies are peppered throughout the game, from the native chief, Papu Papu, to Koala Kong and finally the neurotic and nefarious, Dr. Neo Cortex.

After that experience, it became a tradition: finish my homework and the reward was another bash at Crash Bandicoot. Really, it was the perfect way to get a kid to do his homework! After a while, I expanded my repertoire to include another all-time favourite: Spyro the Dragon. Between them, Crash and Spyro formed the pillars of my childhood gaming experience and I can’t help getting a tinge of nostalgia whenever I look back at that time of my life.

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Two of my childhood legends.

From that moment on, gaming became integral. It was a chance to inhabit and interact with new and exciting worlds and share those experiences with my friends. I eventually got a PS1 for my seventh birthday complete with Abe’s Oddysee. There was no looking back then.

My other love in life has always been reading. I’ve read avidly since I was a kid. For me, gaming and books are extensions of one another. Books craft worlds through language and we conjure up those worlds and characters in our imagination; games create worlds that could easily be extensions of our imaginations and allow us to interact with them in a way books can never hope to replicate.

My love of literature has informed this very blog. I often probe games for their wider cultural and social significance, looking at how they offer insights into political, philosophical and personal questions. It’s exciting that I’ve been able to find an output for those two, complementary loves and it all goes back to that formative experience when I was an excitable six year old playing Crash Bandicoot every night after finishing my homework.

It was Man Crates and their “Super Retro Gamer Crate” that really got me thinking and inspired me to reconnect with my ’90s gamer self. You can check it out here: http://www.mancrates.com/gifts-for-men. In retrospect, it’s funny how much influence one small experience can have on a person. From playing a crazy game about a mutant bandicoot, rescuing his girlfriend from a little yellow scientist with plans for world domination, it all sounds ludicrous. But that’s the beauty of gaming, when you immerse yourself in the worlds crafted by developers, whether it’s the wastes of Boston or the plains of Velen, it all feels so very, very real.

Playing Crash Bandicoot as an eager six year old is where my love of gaming began, but I’d love to hear from you guys what your formative gaming experiences were. Which games get you feeling all tingly with nostalgia? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments section below. Thanks!

Sunset Overdrive: Off the (Fourth) Wall

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Pretty sure he’s gunning for the 4th wall there.

A wittily self-aware, vibrantly colourful, multi-terrain traversing, open world shooter is a pretty good summation of what playing Insomniac Game’s Sunset Overdrive is like. It was my first foray into the world of next-gen gaming back when I got an Xbox One for Christmas 2014; since then, I’ve played the game inside-out and I’m still a long way off running out of content to explore and terrains to traverse.

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I picked up the controller to grind around Sunset City, there have been plenty of distractions in the meantime; but, there’s one thing about Sunset Overdrive that I’ve been itching to write about in a blog post: its brazen, unabashed breaking of the fourth wall.

Anyone who’s had even a cursory interaction with the game can’t have failed to notice its cheeky nods to the player, its playful mocking of gaming tropes and mechanics, as well as a plot as self-aware as a postmodernist novel. To look a little more in-depth at Sunset Overdrive’s liberal play with gaming conventions, I thought I’d give some background on the concept of the fourth wall.

Historically, the term “fourth wall” has been applied to the theatre. In particular, it refers to a traditional three-walled box stage in a proscenium theatre, where the fourth wall is the imaginary or metaphorical one between audience and actor. According to the TDF Theatre Dictionary:

“As a theatregoer, you get to spy on a scene as if there were a semi-transparent barrier between you and the performers. You can see them, but they can’t see you. That’s the idea of the “fourth wall.” It’s a convention, a shared metaphor that the audience and performers allow themselves to believe in.”

The act of breaking the fourth wall is necessarily a breaking of the agreed, shared, or accepted line between the world of fiction and the world of reality – the world inhabited by you the audience member or gamer against the constructed world of the character or actor.

Sunset Overdrive has more than its fair share of moments where it takes a sledgehammer to the whole concept of the fourth wall. Whether that’s quirky respawn animations for the player, a pointed joke about gaming mechanics or the main game’s faux ending, Sunset Overdrive invites the player to participate in its lampooning of video game and narrative tropes in a playful and comical way.

This subversion is extended to the game’s two DLCs, with The Mystery of the Mooil Rig featuring a somewhat bluntly named DL Sea Monster and the follow-up tongue twisting Dawn of the Rise of the Fallen Machines, including Sunset TV’s Brandon Winfrey as its principal antagonist. By the end of the game, there’s virtually no brick left to broken of Sunset Overdrive’s fourth wall.

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Just check that meta-monster out!

The act of breaking the fourth wall is an act which consciously breaks the illusion of fiction, it flies in the face of convention to force the player to scrutinise more closely the very tropes and features which we take for granted while gaming. I mean, why do characters magically disappear right after a cutscene? However, Sunset Overdrive’s breaking the fourth wall is more comical and tongue-in-cheek, rather than a meaningful extension of the gameplay and it follows a long history of games which have committed this very same subversive act.

I think most notably is Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series. The famous fight with Psycho Mantis features numerous instances where the fourth wall is cleverly broken. He will read the player’s memory card, commenting on games you’ve played in the past, as well as remarking on the frequency of the player’s saves and how they perform in stealth based tasks.

Ultimately, in order for the player to beat Psycho Mantis’s ability to “read their mind”, Campbell tells the player to switch controllers from port 1 to port 2. It was a clever and innovative use of breaking the fourth wall, both for its time and for gaming generally, and a clear example of how breaking the illusion of the fictional world can be intelligently integrated into the mechanics and plot of the game itself.

This is where Sunset Overdrive fails. While it’s certainly hilarious and light-hearted, the breaking of the fourth wall operates as little more than a facet of this open world’s knowing nod to the player type humour. While this is perfectly fine in principal, it softens the impact of the game’s metafictional techniques, with breaking the fourth wall being less of an iconoclastic act and more of an unchallenging tenet of Sunset Overdrive’s comedic corpus.

Sunset Overdrive isn’t designed to be taken seriously and that’s why it pokes cheeky fun at all those little features of gaming that we otherwise take for granted. Where there is such an emphasis on creating realistic, engaging and engrossing worlds in gaming, especially in the open world RPG genre, breaking the fourth wall is Sunset Overdrive’s reality check. It reminds us not to get too comfortably absorbed into the world of fiction and while it’s the kind of ploy that could easily irritate someone looking for a full-on immersive experience, I personally find it integral to the game’s charm.

There’s nothing particularly shocking, subversive or innovative about Sunset Overdrive’s breaking of the fourth wall. From the meta conversations between the voice over and the player to the freeze frame intros for new villains, this game breaks the fourth wall so frequently and nonchalantly that I’d be more surprised if it didn’t happen at a new juncture in the plot. The shock effect is lost and, fundamentally, it’s unnecessary to break the gaming illusion so frequently.

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This is what playing this game is really about.

Sunset Overdrive is a game best enjoyed by kicking back, relaxing and grinding all over Sunset City, turning OD into giant piles of orange goo with your TNTeddy. While the act of breaking the fourth wall is humorous and entertaining in some parts, it’s certainly overused in this game, but I can’t say Sunset Overdrive would be the same lovably cheesy experience without it.

What do you think? Is Sunset Overdrive too liberal with breaking the fourth wall or does it strike the balance just right? Maybe it isn’t even necessary at all? I’d love to hear what you guys think in the comments section below. Thanks!

Until Dawn: The Most Uninteractive Interactive Game?

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THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOLIERS

Yes, I know I’m a little late to the party with my review of Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn, which was released back in August; but, as they say, better late than never.

I’ve recently played through the game with friends and owing to our collaborative approach, we’ve opted for a democratic method of decision making, except in the instance of QTEs, where the responses are relinquished to whoever’s controlling the character at the time. The game has been an engrossing tour de force through just about every horror trope conceivable, especially in the context of the Slasher genre. The little tongue in cheek gesture towards slasher movies, à la Cabin in the Woods, was a nice little parodic aspect of the narrative, although the game’s plot is also its greatest flaw.

Until Dawn has been marketed as an “interactive drama survival horror video game” which implements an in-game system based on the idea of the “Butterfly Effect”. Each decision the player makes, no matter how great or small, has the potential for overwhelming implications for the game’s plot and ultimately the survival or its protagonists. Through a number of decisions, conversations and interactions with the world of Until Dawn, the player can either save or kill any or all of the game’s eight protagonists, whether intentionally or not. Collecting totems throughout the game will also offer insights into possible future events which could include good fortune, guidance, loss, danger or death. So far so good?

Well, my issue with the game is precisely its claim to interactivity. Decisions DO of course alter the course of the game’s events and opting to show Matt, for example, that Emily and Mike might still have a thing for each other, taking sides in a confrontation, or even shooting a squirrel and throwing a snowball at an unsuspecting bird alter future events. However, many of the game’s most crucial moments occur as set piece events. When Matt and Emily are debating whether or not to go to the radio tower to send out a distress call for help, Matt can either immediately agree with or resist Emily’s plan. In either case, Matt and Emily will still have to venture to the tower, although disagreeing with Emily will have ramifications. Instead of being able to steer an open-ended plot, players of Until Dawn will mostly be forced into taking sides in highly scripted situations.

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Whoa! Watch where you’re pointing that thing Chris!

Another crucial example occurs when Chris must decide whether to spare Josh or Ashley from the Psychopath’s Saw-like trap: choosing to brutally saw his best friend or the girl he fancies in half. However, no matter whether Chris decides to kill Josh, Ashley or do nothing, the game will automatically “kill” Josh. This occurs because it is later revealed that Josh is in fact the Psychopath, but the game could have benefitted from greater tragic depths if Chris chooses to kill Ashley and enduring the torment of realising it was an unnecessary sacrifice. Furthermore, characters such as Mike and Sam can only be killed towards the game’s denouement; a scenario which obviously prevents players from ending the game too soon, but which also diminishes the breadth and meaningfulness of decision-making within the game.

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Shit! Why do I always have to make the tough decisions?!

The central tenet of my argument is that Until Dawn offers players the capacity to make game altering decisions within a carefully controlled, restricted and strictly scripted environment, where there are a limited scope of possible outcomes. For me, this fact limits the game’s full potential to be a legitimately interactive drama. The scope of the butterfly effect is limited to choices that occur at set points in the game and therefore reduce the ability for a truly open-ended decision making process. Also, some of the outcomes of events are hopelessly unforeseeable, such as the act of shooting the squirrel making it impossible for Sam to escape from the Psychopath later on. It’s not that Until Dawn doesn’t have an interesting system in place – me and my friends debated endlessly the merits of one choice over another – but once you realise the carefully controlled environment that your decisions are made in, then the notion of a fully interactive drama is somewhat lessened.

But, I don’t want to seem to down on this otherwise immensely enjoyable experience. The second half of the game with the appearance of the horrific Wendigos was an unexpected twist and uncovering the true horrors of what happened to Hannah and Beth once they fell into the mines was truly disturbing. Even though each character represents a distinct type or cliché, I found myself intrigued by Mike’s transformation from vapid prep boy to hero and Emily’s bitchy personality put aside for her resourcefulness in the mines when facing the Wendigos.

Overall, Until Dawn was an exciting ride full of twists and turns. It had a host of intriguing characters that were both distinctly drawn and played off each other very well to maintain a balanced narrative. However, I found that the game’s central premise of the butterfly effect was lacking. It didn’t offer the real sense of open-endedness that I’d hoped for with the chance at any moment to drastically alter the game’s narrative. Instead, players make crucial decisions at set points in the game. Would I recommend this game? Definitely. For any horror buff the slasher tropes will be all too familiar, but the clichés are set up only to be undermined by fleshing out the characters with more depth and realism later in the game. It’s just a shame that we couldn’t have the opportunity for more consistently meaningful and wide reaching decision-making throughout the game, securing Until Dawn as the fully interactive survival horror drama it aspires to be.

What do you guys think? Are you a fan of the butterfly effect in Until Dawn or feel that it’s missing something? Also, what about Supermassive’s plan for a VR Until Dawn game? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks!

Do Moral Choices in Video Games Work?

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The conflict between good and evil…or is it?

Morality is a divisive issue in all walks of life, but in the context of video games it assumes a uniquely controversial aspect – from public outcries of gratuitous violence to critiques of the way game developers incorporate moral decisions into their simulated worlds. Today I’m going to be looking at the ways developers just seem to miss out on implementing effective and meaningful moral choices into video games; whether it’s a lack of nuance or a failure to show tangible consequences based on the player’s actions, why can’t they seem to get it right?

An All or Nothing Approach

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Hmm seems like a nice guy.

Moral choices are nothing new in gaming, of course, and some of my all-time favourite titles offer me the opportunity to be a deliciously unscrupulous scoundrel or an infallible hero of the people. However, that dichotomy is exactly the problem – it’s either one or the other. Classic titles such as BioWare and Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic series or Lionhead’s Fable franchise allow the player to assume the identity of a saviour or a sinner with decisions clearly demarcated between those which award good/light side points and those which award evil/dark side points. Neither side accounts for complex and ambiguous moral decisions but instead encourages the player to align themselves one way or another to harvest greater XP points; in fact, remaining relatively neutral is an unrewarding stance to adopt and actively discouraged.

To literalise this simplistic moral duality, the player’s appearance alters in both games depending on how good/evil the player. In Fable, for example, the good player appears youthful, radiant and develops a halo at the highest levels of moral impunity, while the evil character becomes more grotesque and satanic with the accretion of devil horns at the most immoral depths. Both games make a simplistic distinction between morality and immorality based on a set of decisions with easily foreseeable consequences which affect the character’s overall alignment. This is then compounded by a corresponding transformation in physical appearance to match those decisions. In failing to incentivise a more nuanced moral position, the Fable and KOTOR series miss out on offering players a more sophisticated set of ethical premises in which to shape their characters, even if the existing system is childishly entertaining in its own way.

Inconsequential Consequences

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Oops I did it again!

Often in video games featuring moral choices the world is supposed to be shaped and moulded based on your actions. However, these games rarely reinforce the consequences of positive or negative actions in a meaningful and tangible way with NPCs often making bland remarks about your character’s person. Fallout 3 implements a karma based system which shifts depending on actions or dialogue choices made by the player, but like Fable and KOTOR, the system is little more than a slap on the wrist for the sadists amongst us, the repercussions for detonating the nuclear bomb in Megaton are not nearly as damning as they should be. By not providing the conditions or consequences to make serious moral decisions, the pros and cons of one action over another scarcely amounts to a moral dilemma, since the player’s players choice boils down to the same outcome i.e. if I do either X or Y then both X and Y will provide additional XP, some kind of reward and a shift in karma alignment one way or the other without altering the game too radically.

Interestingly, in Fallout 4 the whole karma system is disbanded in favour of alignment with certain factions. However, the game still implies that actions such as stealing or pickpocketing are bad, but does nothing to reinforce this judgement in the game. Therefore, as long as no one sees, I am free to steal what I like without any repercussions. A certain companion may dislike my character thieving valuables from a wealthy bigot in Diamond City, but this is easily circumvented by asking my companion to wait at some remote point out of the way so that they don’t witness my evil deeds. Fundamentally, these “get out” cards trivialise the moral ambiguity of making negative actions by taking them out of a context where the game can alert the player that they are in fact doing something morally questionable.

Witch is Right and Witch is Wrong?

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Right or wrong – can you tell?

One of the biggest games to grace 2015, a game to eclipse all else, is The Witcher 3. I’ve already written about moral ambiguity in my first post here: The Witcher 3: The Grey Areas; for me, The Witcher 3 is just one of those games that gets it right, or as right as any video game trying to simulate the complexity of making moral choices. It succeeds because it offers players the combination of well written, fleshed out characters who are themselves flawed and conflicted and often leads Geralt into a confrontation between the lesser of two evils, where the outcome of the player’s choices are uncertain. Seemingly innocuous decisions can radically alter future events in the game, often for the worst and it is this uncertainty which removes the issue of making moral choices based on predictable outcomes. Decisions are not to be taken lightly and figures such as the Bloody Baron are a wonderfully complex hybrid of despicable and pitiable traits.

The consequences of the player’s choices are not always obvious or even felt till much later in the game, nor are “good” choices always rewarded accordingly. In many ways, The Witcher’s strategy removes many of the barriers which inhibit other games from presenting a cohesive moral system, but it also asks the player to make some deeply unsettling decisions, where neither option is necessarily favourable. It is this unpredictability and uncertainty regarding the consequences of the player’s actions which makes for a more compelling set of moral choices, but at the same time it is also a failing. Arguably, the outcomes of certain choices are too unpredictable and could not be reasonably accounted for during the decision making process. For example, a small choices made in the Bloody Baron’s quest drastically alters the ultimate outcome of the narrative, a result which is in no way implied until it occurs.

In life, we make moral choices based on a likely outcome; we weigh risks when making difficult decisions and we cannot always anticipate what will happen as a consequence of our actions; but in the case of The Witcher 3, I think it presses that uncertainty too far in the quest for a more complex moral system. Nonetheless, it remains in my experience the most compelling and meaningful example of a game which asks the player to make moral choices.

Can games get it right when asking players to make moral choices? Which games do you think do it best and worst? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. If you enjoyed this article then don’t forget to hit the like button. Thanks!

Outlast 2 Teaser – Finally!

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Okay, so I know I’m a little late to game with this one, but hey I still got round to it. So yeah, OUTLAST FRICKING II TEASER TRAILER IS OUT! Ever since Philippe Morin, co-founder of Red Barrels, confirmed in a Bloody Disgusting interview on 23 October 2014 that a sequel to Outlast is in the pipeline, I’ve been ravenous for details. Precious little has been revealed about the sequel so far, with Morin stating that:

“The game will be a survival horror experience and it will take place in the same universe as Outlast, but it will have different characters and a different setting. We might go back to Mount Massive Asylum one day, but for now we have new ideas and themes we’d like to explore and we think we’re cooking up something special” (Bloody Disgusting, Oct. 23, 2014).

Red Barrels are certainly keeping details of their latest blood soaked venture close to their chest, but on October 29, they finally released a teaser trailer to their YouTube channel. You can watch it below:

Once again, the trailer is tauntingly tenebrous, but at least paves the way for more speculation on just exactly where Outlast II will be set and what it might involve. The trailer abruptly presents us with the image of a burning crucifix followed by the ominous ranting of what sounds like a Southern preacher reciting eclectic excerpts from Revelations 14. Meanwhile, the camera pans out, rotating, to gradually reveal that the crucifix is ctually inverted before burning out and cutting to a camera’s night vision mode à la Outlast with dozens of eerie eyes peering from the distance.

Like I said, not much to go on here, but there are a few things we can take away from this teaser. Interestingly, the symbol of the inverted crucifix has become associated with Satanism in the contemporary psyche, especially with its appearance in such films as The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, several of the Exorcist films and a number of other horror flicks. However, the origin of the imagery is derived from the crucifixion of St. Peter, who insisted that he was unworthy of being crucified in the manner of Jesus and asked to be crucified upside down instead as a sign of humility. However, I’m sure that Red Barrels were going for the more sinister satanic slant on the imagery for their upcoming horrorfest.

The significance of the burning cross has a long history, but it is most readily associated with the Ku Klux Klan. The act is considered one of the many techniques of intimidation employed by the KKK, although they insist that the act is one of veneration rather than desecration based on the idea that the cross is “lighted” rather than burned and as such is a symbol of faith. Regardless of the nature of the symbolism, I think we can assume that the KKK will play a significant role in Outlast II. The Southern preacher’s apocalyptic rantings also appear to confirm this theory.

Finally, Red Barrels’ steam page features this description of the game:

“No conflict is ever black and white. But once the dust has settled, the victors get to decide who was right and who was wrong. Who is good and who is evil. Human nature pushes us to extremes of violence and depravity, which we then justify by divine inspiration and a promise of paradise to come. Horror rises from desperation and blind faith. OUTLAST 2 will test your faith, pushing players to a place where going mad is the only sane thing to do.”

Moral relativism and religious fervour are the two themes that stand out for me in this description. It leaves the promise of throwing players into a moral quagmire where no one’s actions are fully commendable or reprehensible. This convoluted ethical uncertainty would add some welcome depth to the game. Where Outlast was populated with certifiable lunatics, the injection of some complexity and diversity into the nightmare would be a great way to take the franchise forward by muddying the distinctions between good and evil, sane and insane.

Red Barrels have thrown us this tiny morsel to chew on like ravenous fiends but have left the sour taste of a Fall 2016 release date in our mouths. I’ve been eagerly keeping an eye out for information on Outlast II since its announcement last year; my hopes were piqued by this teaser trailer, but it seems fans of the series will have to wait patiently until next year before being able to sink their teeth into this title. However, Red Barrels are a very small team (only 12) and I have a great deal of faith that they’ll deliver something vile, repulsive and utterly terrifying So, in the mean time I’ll just have to wait impatiently anticipating more news on what is sure to be a sadistic sequel.

Are you hyped for Outlast II? Can’t wait a whole year to play it? Or maybe you have some more thoughts on this tantalising teaser? Let me know in the comment section below.

Fallout 4: Familiar Territory or New Frontier?

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS

 

Fallout-4-Wanderer-live-action-trailer

“Ready to fuck some shit up?” – Sole Survivor

The insurmountable hype building up to the release of Fallout 4 was so massive that you’d be forgiven for thinking that level of anticipation would invoke the apocalypse itself. So, after nearly two weeks from its release how is 2015’s most hotly anticipated gaming holding up? For me, the debate comes down to whether Fallout 4 breaks forward into a new frontier or languishes in familiar territory.

In 2008, Fallout 3 took the world by storm (make that nuclear storm). The game marked a major revitalisation of the Fallout series and significantly revamped the style and mechanics of its 1998 predecessor. Fallout 4 has arrived 7 years after Fallout 3, close to the same time gap between Fallout 2 and 3, but how much has the game changed in that time?

Bethesda has certainly addressed much of the issues that we encountered in Fallout 3 as well as added entirely new gameplay features to the game. This time around the narrative is more fully realised, ambitious and emotive than in the previous title and now features fully voiced male and female protagonists depending on the player’s preference at the start of the game. The initial hook in the prologue showing our character interacting with his/her family before the bombs are dropped on Boston adds a nice twist on proceedings, yet we are soon thrust into that irradiated Bostonian wasteland over 200 years later to begin searching for the character’s kidnapped baby, Shaun (similar to the Lone Wanderer’s quest in search of their father in Fallout 3).

After some preliminary exploration, the scale of the game becomes apparent. And it is massive. There are multitudes of buildings, wastes, wreckages to fully explore; loot and junk to hoard; and factions to side with or not. The factions are a major plus in Fallout 4 with the opportunity to enjoy meaningful rewards for completing tasks to curry favour with the leader of each faction. Whether it’s the Brotherhood of Steel, the Minutemen, the Railroad, or the Institute itself, each has something to offer the player. Siding with the Brotherhood of Steel, for example, allows the player to become an initiate, later ascending to the rank of knight, make use of power armour and travel in a vertibird – all meaningful rewards for the player’s actions.

The factions also tie nicely into the main narrative of the game concerning the player’s quest to infiltrate the Institute to recover Shaun; it brings more coherence and unity to the game’s plot. Each faction has a story to tell, a guiding philosophy and a reason to despise the Institute. The motivations of the Brotherhood, who exhibit more authoritarian and fascist leanings, push the player to question the ethics of siding with such an organisation which adds more depth and weight to the choices we make across the game.

However, one of my main issues with Fallout 4 is with the main plot. It suffers from a lack of pacing and feels far too short in comparison to the rest of the game. It did not take me long to complete the main quests and that’s accounting for the fact that I didn’t rush it, either. With such a short primary narrative, it feels as if it pales into insignificance against the mountains and minutiae of content that the game has to offer: settlement building, hoarding, side quests, faction quests, exploration. It feels like the game is divided into main quest and the rest of the game, and the rest of the game constitutes a massive distraction to the principal narrative arc of Fallout 4. By the time I reached the game’s conclusion and the twist was revealed, the lack of good pacing detracted from the overall effect of this revelation making for an unsatisfactory denouement.

Don’t get me wrong, I have really enjoyed playing this game. It has so much to offer, which is where the main enjoyment comes from. Heck, it’s what makes it a proper Fallout game. There are huge chunks of the map I’ve yet to explore, more quests to do, more epic Behemoths and Mirelurk Queens to slay. It’s what keeps me coming back to the game, that impulse to just see what’s over the next hill, what’s in that next office block, or to see who inhabits that settlement. Bethesda have certainly recaptured what made Fallout 3 so totally and irrevocably engrossing. And there’s the problem: Fallout 4 is far too similar to its predecessor.

Boston_Vista

Not too shabby for a nuclear wasteland

Despite the addition of some new features, such as fully functioning power armour, a stripped back levelling up system, settlements, voiced protagonists, Fallout 4 feels just like playing Fallout 3. I get the same feeling when wandering the wastes of Boston as I did the desolate plains of DC. The game looks more beautiful; in fact, I appreciated the diversity of landscapes compared to the previous title, but after several hours of playing, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve done all of this before. The playground Bethesda have constructed for us players is certainly enticing and addictive, but it’s a little too safe, a little too familiar to what has gone before, as if they thought that revamping a few features of Fallout 3 would suffice. Yet, Fallout 3 is a colossal leap from Fallout 2 and Fallout 4 is a few of Shaun’s baby steps from Fallout 3. Of course the fans are going to love it because we’ve already played it before; we’ve vicariously travelled the Bostonian wastes before through the remnants of Washington DC.

This sense of over familiarity essentially captures my thoughts, impressions and attitudes toward Fallout 4. Bethesda stuck to what they know works, rather than taking a risk and trying something new, something radical and while Fallout 4 is a great game which does improve on Fallout 3, it is that reliance on a tried and tested formula which holds it back from becoming the breathtakingly exceptional experience of Fallout 3. Ultimately, while a solid game in its own right, for me, Fallout 4 represents a venture not into new frontiers but into familiar territory.

I hope you guys enjoyed this review. Comment below to let me know what you think about Fallout 4 and how you think it compares to Fallout 3. Thanks!