E3 2016 Rundown

OasisE3 has come and gone, and with it, much of the excitement most of us feel when we get a glimpse of the games we’re most excited about in the coming years. While games will be announced, shown off and canceled in the other months (sometimes, all within the same week), E3 is one of a handful of times each year that we get such a massive concentrated amount of video game news, all packed within five or six days of neon lights, “gameplay” trailers, and overly-excited video game press people telling us how these games will change our lives. And while the show is not quite the spectacle it used to be, it’s still an event in its own right, and every year, we always get more than a few surprise nuggets of news, and we get to hear more about the games on our radars.

This year, I continued my 21-year-streak of not attending the conference in person, but rather watching all of the big conferences and trailers online. That said, while this year was not as big as last year (Shenmue 3 will forever hold the crown for biggest announcements at an E3 ever), there were still some interesting games on display, and quite a few of them have given me some pretty good hope for the following twelve months. Specifically, I’m super excited about the following:

  • ABZU – Oh, hell yes. Underwater exploration featuring a massive and stylized ocean? I’ve never known how much I have wanted that in a game until right now.

  • Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – I know I threw a bit of shade at this game earlier this week, and my opinions on that issue have not changed. I still think they missed a massive opportunity with this game to increase diversity in the video game industry. That said, it’s hard to deny that they’ve worked hard to create something truly unique in a Zelda game and injected some much-needed life into the franchise. Despite my issues, I am still way excited for this game.

  • Horizons: Zero Dawn – Hot damn, this game looks tight. Last year, I was definitely interested, but getting a chance to see some of the gameplay — a cross between Monster Hunter and Skyrim — has increased my interest considerably. I am so interested to see this world.

  • Pyre – I can’t think of many indie games I have loved as much as Bastion and Transistor. Through these two games, we have seen some of the best world building and storytelling in modern video games. I am a little unsure of the weird competition style of the gameplay, but SuperGiant has done more than enough with their past two games to buy my enthusiasm for this new title.

  • The Last Guardian – What can be said about this game that hasn’t been said a million times over the past 8 years the game has been in development. We finally have a release date though, and in that, my excitement is renewed again. I am concerned, however, if the game can live up to its own hype. Additionally, games were different in 2008. Has the core concept of the game aged well? We’ll have to wait until October to see.

Outside of these games, I did have a few other thoughts. A lot of these are the games I’ve had on my radar before, and the showing at E3 this year has shifted them in some way.

  • Ever Oasis – A new RPG IP from the Mushroom Kingdom? Awesome. Yes, please. We didn’t get to see too much in the announcement trailer, but I’m definitely ready to see where this one goes.
  • Death Stranding – Come on, it’s Hideo Kojima. For all of its faults, it will provide one of the most moving and interesting stories in whatever year it’s finally released.
  • Final Fantasy XV – Woof, this game had an interesting showing this year. That is rough for the game’s last E3 before release. Between the horrible X-Box demo and the less than stellar response to the PS VR experience, I was starting to get a little uneasy about this game, especially with The Last Guardian now releasing within weeks. But, the late announcement of the “Wait” mode, allowing the player to pause combat and strategically plan their next move does interest me, especially since the fast-paced, frantic combat of Final Fantasy XIII was one of the weaker parts of the game for me.
  • God of War – Confession time. I am not a fan of the God of War series. I tried to play the first one, and I just got bored. I wasn’t super impressed with the trailer for this new entry, but I later read an interview with one of the developers who said this was going to be a story about regret, with Kratos trying to balance raising a son with coming to grips with all of the sins of his past. This is a remarkably deep concept, and I’m kind of intrigued.
  • Star Wars VR and Batman VR – Sony knows their audience, that’s for sure. It’s not yet enough to get me to buy into VR, but it’s close.

And with this, my rundown is done. Again, I didn’t attend the show, so much of my exposure to the different games are from the little bit of news I picked up here and there during my work day. I’m sure I missed some great games, which I’m actually okay with. It means when they pop up on my radar later this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. And that’s okay. We need a little mystery in our video games.

All right, E3, it’s been fun.  Goodbye, and we’ll see you in 2017!

Nintendo and Wasted Opportunity

zelda-breath-of-the-wildLike most Nintendo fans, I watched the live Treehouse stream yesterday with equal parts joy and excitement to finally see some of the gameworld in the upcoming Legend of Zelda, awesomely named “Breath of the Wild.” I love me some Zelda, and I got goosebumps as I watched the stream and saw Link interacting with his world in new and fresh ways. Needless to say, I am a Legend of Zelda fan from way back, and “Breath of the Wild” looks to be something radical and unique, the breath (of the wild) of fresh air the series has needed for so long.

I am excited to play this game, is what I’m trying to say.

But that excitement was tempered quite quickly, however, when producer Eiji Aonuma spoke with Kotaku about why the game would not feature a gender-swapped Link, something that was rumored in the months leading up to this year’s E3. I’m not going to take Nintendo to task for not including the female-option for Link, though I probably should. It’s not just a wasted opportunity, it’s a defiance of an inclusive culture that all video game companies should strive for. Nintendo has no excuse for this now since they already gave us “Linkle,” a female Link counterpart, in Hyrule Warriors. I’m not going to take Nintendo to task for making the game they wanted to make, because ultimately, they are free to make their game however they wish.

I will, however, take Nintendo to task for the God-awful reason they left the option out of the game. Read the rest of this entry »

How a Game Reduced Me to an Emotional Mess

Cancer2I’ve played a lot of video games in my life. As someone who started playing around the time of the Atari 7800 in the 1980s, I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve saved the day, or I’ve beat the big bad guy, or I’ve rescued the damsel in distress. Never before, however, has a game hit me with quite the emotional gut punch that I experienced a couple of weeks ago, when I played That Dragon, Cancer. For those who have not heard of it, That Dragon, Cancer is a game created to serve as a memorial to a young life, Joel Green, who was taken far too early for anyone’s comfort. The game was planned, Kickstarted, and developed by Joel’s parents, Amy and Ryan Green, who sought to not only immortalize the short life of their son, but also detail the story of the family’s journey through Joel’s fight and eventual loss to a rare form of brain cancer. The game is heartbreaking, and intimate, and terrifying all at once. And it’s different than any other video game you may have ever experienced.

Most importantly, I think it’s a game that everyone should play.

Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Kid Yourself: You Care About Sexuality in Star Wars

Aftermath - CoverI’ve read a lot of Star Wars books in my life, both good and bad. When I was in my early teens, my friend Logan, who loved — I mean LOVED — Star Wars books bought a bunch of them and loaned them all to me. Others I bought myself, or I got from the local library. I was blown away by the Zahn trilogy, I was captivated by Shadows of the Empire. I was even okay with Darksaber, despite what I consider fairly subpar characterization of the classic heroes of of the Star Wars universe. I fell off the bandwagon sometime around the New Jedi Order, when R.A. Salvatore so cruelly killed Chewbacca, quite possibly the most noble of all the characters in the Star Wars universe.

My point in all of this is that I have been around the block when it comes to Star Wars books. I have.

So, I feel like I have a fair amount of credibility when I write about Chuck Wendig’s recently released novel, Star Wars: Aftermath, the first of a trilogy that seeks to bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Unleashed. Like many fans of The Wars, I picked up Aftermath on Friday, and have spent the past few days, when I can, making my way through the events that immediately follow the destruction of the second Death Star per the current canon. I haven’t finished the book yet — so, no spoilers — but I have noticed a pretty crappy criticism of the book pop up over the past few days, and I feel it’s one I need to address.

Now, before I go on: again, I haven’t finished the book. I don’t want to comment on Wendig’s style or voice, or even the major events of the book, and how they hold up to the previous expanded universe. I will most likely post my review over at Idealcomics.net a little later this week, and maybe I’ll address some criticism there. I don’t know. Instead, today, I want to respond to a very, very specific critique I’ve seen pop up here and there. I want to respond to the critique over the gay characters that Wendig has chosen to include.

In reviews on Amazon.com, and even a column over at Allenbwest.com, I’ve seen people complain about the gay characters, and they always seem to say the same thing: “I don’t want to read about the sexuality of the characters.” Now, I understand this argument, only to the point of understanding the ignorance behind it. I understand it because I used to say it. Way back when I was a teenager, I used to say the same thing: “Ugh. Why do I have to know that character is gay? I don’t care about the sexuality of these characters. I only want to know what happens.” Of course, back then, I was misguided, ignorant, and to put it quite bluntly, bigoted in these comments. I understand that, I accept it, and I’ve worked really hard over the past years to change my thinking in this regard. I hope, by writing this, anyone who holds this perspective can join me in this journey to arrive at the other end of enlightenment.

The importance of including gay characters in fiction is quite simply a case of representation. Whether you agree with it or not — which is really inconsequential — people from across the spectrum of sexuality exist in this world, and like you and me, they enjoy seeing characters in fiction that reflect who they are. Including gay/bi/trans characters in fiction does that, and really, it in no way affects you at all, so why complain? Do you feel that in reading about these characters, you’re going to suddenly become gay? Because it doesn’t work like that.

Second, to address the wording of the criticism directly. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you do care about the sexuality of the characters. I’m going to include a snippet of dialogue here from Empire Strikes Back, which should require no introduction. It’s quite possibly the most famous interchange in all three movies.

Leia: I love you.
Han: I know.

I KnowThat is quite possibly the most gender-stereotypical, heterosexual interchange many of us have ever heard, and we most likely didn’t even realize it. Leia pours her heart out. Han responds in a curt, manly way. He’s getting ready to face his doom, and he doesn’t show emotion. He stares her straight in the eyes and responds, coolly, “I know.” Cue panty drop.

This line is proof that people care about the sexuality of characters because people love this line. People quote this line. As I said earlier, it’s one of the most-recognized lines in the original trilogy. But, it’s a very heterosexual line, and it reaffirms the heterosexuality of Han and Leia. And it doesn’t stop there. We see the heterosexuality of Luke established in the Zahn trilogy with the introduction of Mara Jade. Even in the prequel trilogy, a heterosexual relationship is one of the primary catalysts of the entire story.

Don’t kid yourself. You care about the sexuality of the characters. The truth is — and this was a hard truth to come to for myself — you care about the heterosexuality of the characters. When I had a problem with gay characters, it wasn’t that I didn’t care about the sexuality of characters, or that the sexuality of the characters shouldn’t matter, I just didn’t want to read about gay characters. I had issues with it for a whole host of reasons which I don’t want to go into here. Just know that I eventually recognized the errors of my ways, and I started to question a lot of environmental, societal, and ideological ideals that informed and shaped that perspective.

Once I recognized my issues and understood them, I started to change. It’s something that I hope can happen for many of the reviewers who are struggling with the gay characters in Star Wars: Aftermath. Like I said, I understand your perspective because I at one time wrongly felt the same way. I only hope that you take the same journey that I did. Try to come to the same realizations that I did. And, ultimately, try to make the same changes that I did. Trust me, you’ll discover some great fiction and great characters, and ultimately, you’ll find more fiction to enjoy. And, really, isn’t that why you read fiction to begin with? To enjoy it?

I know that hoping to change anyone’s perspective with a little 1,000 word blog post is most likely a tall order, but if these words make their way into even one critic’s head, I’ll felt like I did some good. Heck, even if no one ever reads it, I’ll feel like it’s doing some good. Because the voices of bigots are loud, and we sometimes need to counter with something even louder.

I think that’s worth it, if nothing else.

King’s Quest: Tugging My Heartstrings

KQ-Box-ArtThe last time I wrote about King’s Quest, it was to criticize Sierra’s choice to wrap content into its episodic distribution model to “encourage” consumers to purchase the “Complete Collection.” Near the end of that article, I wrote that while I criticized the decision, I would most likely purchase the “Complete Collection” because I have a compulsive need to complete stories. I also wrote that that might make me a hypocrite, but that would be a topic for another piece. Well, I did buy the “Complete Collection,” but I’m not going to write about being a hypocrite. Not yet, anyway. That may still come up down the road. Instead, today, I want to talk specifically about my thoughts about the new King’s Quest, specifically the first chapter: A Knight to Remember.

I love this series, even if I came on board a few years later than most. I actually started playing King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride in 1995, which is an odd entry in the series to get on board with, I know. Before that, though, I didn’t have a PC, so I couldn’t play any of the earlier entries in the series. I seem to have a brief memory of playing a demo of King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human on my grandparent’s computer before that, but if I did, I don’t remember much about the game beyond a frustration with the text parser. Unlike most people — and it might have been because it was my first — I have fond memories of King’s Quest VII. I thought the game was funny, I loved the hand-drawn artwork, and I enjoyed the puzzles. I’m not sure that I could ask for much more from an adventure game, really, and I played King’s Quest VII multiple times. Around this time, my friend Joel and I decided to see what the big deal about this series was, and we purchased a couple of copies of the King’s Quest Collection off of eBay. It was through this collection that I was introduced to King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, which quickly found its place near the top of my favorite games of all time list, a list populated solely by console and arcade games at the time, where it remains to this day.

KQ1-3So, it was with this mindset that I approached the new King’s Quest. I’m a long-time fan of the series, and I had high hopes for this reboot. Thankfully, I think this new iteration in the series is a worthy heir to the crown, and a game that would make series creator Roberta Williams proud.

This first chapter opens with a callback to the original game. Sir Graham, the protagonist, descends into a well to recover a magic mirror. Those of us who have played the original game know that in order to do so he will have to deal with a fire-breathing dragon, but the reward of success is great: By collecting the lost treasures of Daventry, King Edward will name Graham his heir, setting up the story for the entire series. It’s a nice touch for fans of the classic series, and the entire situation is re-imagined beautifully. There’s a connection to the old series built here, and it’s one that has to be acknowledged. Additionally, it provides a nice segue into the framing sequence of this new King’s Quest. Just as you start to wonder if you’re just going to be playing a retread of the first game, you learn that the entire scenario is a story a much older Graham is telling to his granddaughter, Gwendolyn. This first chapter, and subsequent chapters from here, are all stories of Graham’s life told through the much older eyes of a man near the end of his life. It’s a nice framing sequence, and a wonderful addition to a series that has always put such a focus on Graham and his family.

As Gwendolyn prepares for an fencing tournament, Graham decides to tell her another story: the story of his first adventure in Daventry, the story of how he became a knight. It’s this story that the player gets to enjoy. Overall, the story is extremely well-told. While at first it appears to be a fairly standard adventure game story featuring puzzles and humor, there are a number of extremely touching scenes within this narrative that quickly set it apart from everything that has come before. I believe it’s fair to say that this is the first mature King’s Quest. Now, by this, I do not mean mature in the boobs and gore sense, but rather, below the surface of this game we find something deep and real. This is the first King’s Quest that I feel was created to say something, and I think it does.

KQ1-2Anytime you try to bring something new to the gaming table, you have to ask what it adds to the conversation that surrounds it. Traditionally, adventure games have been heavy on puzzle-solving and gameplay, and light on the pathos. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this — The Longest Journey springs to mind immediately — but par for the course, in previous games, the story existed, but it mostly took a backseat to the puzzles, and rightly so. Adventure games are about solving puzzles and advancing the adventure. When a game manages to meet both sides halfway, though, I think you end up with something great, and I think this is where King’s Quest succeeds. There are some serious moments of pathos within this narrative, and these moments grip you. It’s a subtle grip, and you might not even realize it until it’s over, but there are moments within this story that you just have to stop and take in. You just feel moved.

It’s not all seriousness, of course. Just as the game starts to grow a bit grave, someone gets hit in the face with a pie, and you’re quickly reminded that you are playing a King’s Quest game, and that’s awesome. There are puns galore — as there should be — along with some really funny situations and dialogue. This is the first game in a long time that had me literally LOL’ing.

My point is, though, that King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember is more than just another adventure game. It takes the adventure genre and adds to it, builds on it, brings it forward in time to create a cinematic experience that is very welcome. And I love it for that.

That said, if I had to pick a place where the game seems to falter most, it’s actually in the conventions that it adopts from the adventure genre, but doesn’t seem to try to improve. While I think it makes a lot of strides on the narrative side of things, solving the puzzles sometimes feels dated and tired. Don’t get me wrong. The puzzles in King’s Quest aren’t bad. On the contrary, as an adventure game, the puzzles are extremely well-done. I’ve played some adventure games in which the puzzles are all long, convoluted fetch quests that make no sense. Thankfully, King’s Quest doesn’t fall into that trap. Where it does get hampered up, though, is in the classic adventure games issue of trial and error. A lot of times, there’s not a ton of direction on what to do next. I often found myself trying things that I thought made sense, but didn’t work. Or, even worse, got me killed. Then, I would try something that shouldn’t work, but ultimately turned out to be what I needed to do next. These instances were fairly far and in-between though, so to fault the game for this too much is really nitpicky. It’s a problem that most adventure games run into, and King’s Quest handles the challenge better than most. It’s just that sometimes, it felt I only advanced the game by accident, which does little to help my self-esteem.

KQ1-1And this is all made a bit worse by the size of King’s Quest. While this is not a complaint that the game is too large, it does present some issues when you have to figure out puzzles. You will spend a lot of time walking around Daventry, especially when you’re unsure of where to go next. Even when you do know, you’ll still have to get there, and Graham walks a little slower than most video game characters. Additionally, it’s sometimes really easy to get lost going down the various paths that all lead back to the same place. I nearly pulled out a piece of paper to draw myself a map, which probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

With all this considered, the question then becomes can I fault King’s Quest for any of this all too much? I wrote in my last article about conventions for genres, and these are conventions for the “adventure game” genre. But, are they conventions that we want to keep with each new entry into the genre? Do we want to reinforce these design concepts over others? I’m not so sure.

Of course, we might not be able to get rid of them. Maybe the reasons I enjoyed this game so much are the very reasons I’m poking at right now. The nostalgia factor is great with this game, and this is important to note. I spent a lot of my childhood playing video games, and the King’s Quest series was very high up on that list. Before the days of walkthroughs and online hints, I sat at a computer and I carved out my path through each game, suffering through by sheer willpower alone. I lived and died on that stupid cliff-face in King’s Quest VI more times than I can count, and I loved every minute. And every minute I spent walking through Daventry in A Knight to Remember transported me back. This game just feels like my childhood. And while I don’t buy into the common Internet idea of people my age that new versions of the things I liked as a kid are “ravaging” my childhood, it sure feels nice to play something from my era and have it maintain the same feeling and experience as it used to.

And that’s where I feel like I’m talking in circles, and I’m not helping anyone.

As I wrap up this review, I’m not sure I can heap much more praise on King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember then to say this: When I finished playing it, I wanted nothing more than to restart the game and experience it again. Games are meant to be fun, and despite some minor technical flaws, I think King’s Quest succeeds in this extremely well. It does a great job of pulling at the player’s nostalgic heartstrings, while getting him or her excited about the potential future of the series. And I’m not sure I can ask for much more than that.