Core values

Metalcore has many problems, and they begin with the name. It’s an embarrassing lie. Metalcore is not the core of anything, let alone a genre that’s been around for centuries. Metalcore is, every year, with every new band, stuttery guitars and a mixture of screaming and yelling. My late father, a dabbler in 90s metal and my enabler for the genre at an early age, would have laughed if he heard the music of Memphis May Fire.

Occasionally, bands are able to step out of the immaturity of metalcore, though, for some reason, maybe label-driven reasons, they keep the descriptor. Norma Jean’s last two releases have pulled the overweight tank of a genre as far as they could with smart writing and a complex sound that’s worth chewing on. August Burns Red, despite not convincing me to let go of 2009’s Constellations yet, have tried to do the same for metalcore with weaker writing and interesting structure. The genre is growing, ironically, much slower than the adrenaline-fueled music it’s filled with.

For the last few years, I’ve continued to listen to metalcore, not for enjoyment, but for research. I’m digging through what I once loved to try to find out why I don’t anymore. I ask myself if it’s really about me getting older, and more jaded about a type of music I’ve listened to for close to 10 years now. I’d like to think the answer isn’t that simple. Age and taste affect each other, surely, but I know I still enjoy other things that I used to, like video games and movies, for different reasons now.

It turns out, the answer is simple to describe, but, I assume, much harder to get right, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. The answer lies within another meaninglessly named genre. One that people, forgivably, often confuse with metalcore. Post-hardcore takes influence from punk rock, but brings in the grit and melody of metalcore. The answer is the small, yet significant, difference between post-hardcore and metalcore: range.

Metalcore is the cat that climbs up a tree and doesn’t know how to get down. While it meows for attention, post-hardcore is leaping from ground to branch with grace. Those are my best cat metaphors to say that post-hardcore has a range of sound that metalcore does not. Post-hardcore takes the important bits from metalcore and gives them room to breathe.

I’m talking about bands like Wolves at the Gate and Dance Gavin Dance—who released my favorite album of last year. Wolves at the Gate is post-hardcore with a punch and soaring vocals to accompany it. Dance Gavin Dance is post-hardcore with dirty melody; their guitarists carry the songs with electronic precision. While Wolves At the Gate gets heavier with VxV, Dance Gavin Dance gets looser. There’s a noticeable difference between the two bands. As a metalcore listener, the onslaught of Rise Records and chuggy-guitared bands makes it hard to remember that music in the same genre is allowed to be different.

About a minute into Being As An Ocean’s How We Both Wondrously Perish, you’ll realize what makes this five-piece from California different. I’ve never purposely listened to spoken word before. I’ve always found it artificial in metal, where it’s often used with poor lyrics about rising up or as a brief reprieve before a thick breakdown. In Wondrously Perish, the spoken word legitimizes the poetic lyrical structure of the genre. In one moment, lead singer Joel Quartuccio preaches the words, in the next, he’s giving them serration. Sometimes I imagine he’s reading them like scripture, fueling each syllable with emotion that seems to come from somewhere personal. I’m stunned every time, because the homogenization of metalcore has dulled me to the concept of authored messages.

The clean singer and guitarist, Michael McGough, has been criticized for plaguing the band with whiny, repetitive vocals. It’s a common complaint that comes from the auto-tuned hell most music in both genres willingly lives in. But McGough does what many singers can’t, not only because of skill, but because the music lets him. If the song is on 11 from the beginning, there’s no comfortable time to slow down and sing. It’s the very structure of Wondrously Perish’s 10 songs that let him slide in between and become the juxtaposition to the pulse of the rage. And that’s only in the angry songs, which make up less than half of the album. The rest of the time he’s tossing back and forth between Quartuccio’s raw talk and rawer screams.

What I love most about Wondrously Perish is the lack of anemic guitar-work. Here, they pull the songs by a puppeteer’s strings, letting them down gently to yank them back up again. And the transitions are clean. Try to find the guitars in the raucous metalcore bands today. The same bands that have given up on instrumental precision and have bet on blunt lyrics, made even more stale with the invention of lyric videos.

Like with the vocals, Wonderously Perish’s source material demands variety from the guitars. I think listening to the songs as you would a audio book is the best experience. They are stories, metaphors, and, admittedly, sometimes a little too preachy, creeds. They make us feel for the musicians, which is something metalcore songs replace with vague rally cries and relationship issues. And don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a lot more to be written about love, but coming from a place of hatred—especially from groups made up of only men— as they usually do, is only exploiting our culture’s serious female representation problems. Metalcore, because of its constraints, has a lot of problems to work through and juvenile messaging is on top of the list.

That’s why I refuse to believe that Being As An Ocean has only been a band for three years. Three years. It took them three years to figure out what August Burns Red, an 11-year-old band, has only discovered in the last five. They’re the evolution of metalcore with the post-hardcore label. I guess it’s always the young, cycle-breakers that elevate their craft.

They realized that for genres that obsesses over lyrics and extreme sound, they should borrow from how we speak more often. Language derives meaning from range. It’s why we whisper and yell depending on the situation. Being As An Ocean didn’t figure out how to make good music, they figured out how to be human.

Image: Being As An Ocean / YouTube

Live at Woody’s Burgers

Hidden behind a stale, 1950’s diner facade at Woody’s Burgers is a room booming with life. It’s the idealized night club you see in movies. Dim room, dark colors, darker faces occasionally illuminated by candle light. Loud. This is the kind of place you surrender small talk and embrace brevity. Scream to order. It’s not stale rock and pop hits blaring off of a CD over speakers, Woody’s hosts a variety of live bands in its little venue.

When we drove up we heard nothing, saw nothing. We thought we’d regret tonight’s Yelp-assisted decision, like many others do, according to the similar surprise from a family of four on our way out. The bar stools in front are empty because the real party is inside.

You are an alien walking into a planet that does not speak your language, that does not function that way you do on your first steps into the real Woody’s. Palm Spring’s oldest are here, hooting, hollering, and swaying before the band. They found something here, something in the music, that invigorates them, makes them happy. Life is sucked out of that room and what’s there is eternal.

The burgers aren’t, but living a spoiled life like that might ruin the fun. Diner burgers that would make Red Robin rethink its whole existence or that at least made me. Maybe it’s more damaging to call them that. They’re simple. The Western Burger is patty, some coleslaw-like combination of lettuce, maynonaise, and carrots, barbecue sauce, bacon, tomato, and onion ring. The package, which is much simpler than these words make it sound, is wrapped in a soft, toasted chewy bun. Muted glory that lets that music sing.

It’s hard to leave Woody’s. The music, that endless energy, pulls at you. Stay, it says. Forget the world outside these walls. Feel what’s in here. But that fear that keeps us from unending indulgence—the diets, the exercise, the self-help, the therapy, the meditation—tears us away. Never ones to break the rules.

We left. The music, that lifeblood stayed. If you know it, you can almost hear it standing outside that 1950’s exterior, where the diner is empty. But temptation is all that follows you home.

The great Mongolian lie

What do you do when you’re already out, gathering groceries and finishing other miscellaneous errands before the weekend ends? You go to lunch, and since you’re far enough away from home and the usual spots, you check Yelp.

Yelp led me to one of the greatest restaurants in Renton, Wash. area a few months ago. A small barbecue place where the orders—ribs, chicken, turkey, and brisket, usually brisket—meet you at the table as soon as you sit down. The immediacy is a good thing, because the food was tremendous the last three or four times I’ve visited.

Where would Yelp bring me to next? I would say my hunger for Mongolian grill was subconscious, but as soon as Yelp’s local recommendation was a place of the type, the recent lack of it jumped right to the front of my mind. It had been too long since the steam of a salty combination of grilled meat and noodles sat under nose. You have to be practically voracious for the heaps of food you’ll walk away with at a Mongolian grill—and I was. Lunch was decided.

My only comparison to Jasmine’s Mongolian Grill in Kent, Wash. was the two Chang’s Mongolian Grills I had spent the last 5 years of my life bouncing back and forth from. The Mongolian grill is a simple idea, one that I doubt is capable of flubbing. You’ve got a buffet-style line of fixings—thinly sliced meat and poultry, vegetables, noodles, seafood, and an assortment of flavoring liquids—that lead to a massive, circle-shaped, flat grill at some ungodly amount of heat. You slide through the ingredients filling up a bowl or two, soak it in a brew of liquids like soy sauce and garlic that only a true witch could love, and you hand it to the chef as he orbits around the grill.

I’ve learned during my frequent visits to Chang’s over the years that there’s a secret game at play while you listen to your concoction char and sizzle on the grill in front of you. The chefs dump each bowl of food onto the grill in order and you have to remember which one is your’s. The trick is to remember the order, because everyone’s mixture is meat, vegetables, and noodles too. I’ve gotten someone else’s creation before and I was very confused and soon disappointed as I made my trek back to the food aisle with a new bowl. If you want to eat what’s rightly yours, you’ve got to pay attention.

With this elaborate lead up to the actual eating of the food, you’d think it would be full of depth and texture to make it all worth it in the end. No, not really. It’s mostly a confusing mixture of Asian flavors, mostly soy sauce, and noodles. In a lot of ways, it feels like the equivalent of a KFC chicken bowl with its lazy combination of chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, gravy, and cheese. It’s like someone threw a bunch of ingredients into a bowl (heh) and thought what better way to bring this all together with way too many noodles? The result is an overwhelming plate of carbohydrates and grease, not all that different from the drive-throughs that lined the the way home. I can’t say I was surprised; I just forgot.

I’ll give Jasmine’s points for making waddle-inducing food look like it has some amount of class. The place breathes with a high ceiling and wide walkways. Chang’s always feels so needlessly congested with tables and booths behind two imposing walls to funnel you to the grill. I realize the whole concept is not far off of a scientist testing to see if a rat is smart enough to find the cheese at the end of the maze, but it doesn’t need to be that obvious.

What cemented this devious relationship between food and eater is my discovery tonight as I was doing a little research on the history of Mongolian grill cuisine. I found out it’s essentially a lie. It’s actually defined as Mongolian barbecue, but it’s neither Mongolian or barbecue. It’s roots are in Taiwan and its popularity spread into America. This is the second time today that I can’t say I’m surprised. Mongolians typically eat lots of meat because their cold climate doesn’t allow vegetables to grow reliably. Mongolian barbecue is more related to a Japanese style of cooking called teppanyaki, which consists of food fried on an iron griddle. Leave it to Wikipedia to reveal to me the truth of what I gladly put inside of my mouth.

The internet brought me to Jasmine’s and it will probably keep me away. Let this be a personal reminder that there are so many better options out there than a plate of food with a fake ID and the power to make me hate myself tonight. I will not be fooled again.

On the artificiality of choice in The Banner Saga

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Writer Walt Williams says there’s a third option to each of the big choices in his game, Spec Ops: The Line. The choice between two horrible things, like killing someone in cold blood or putting your own teammates in danger for example, has an out, one that is available for the rest of the game. It’s the only choice that absolves you of the sins the game asks you to do. It’s simple, and one that is available before you even interact with the game. He was surprised so many players had not chosen it.

He says it’s the ability to quit playing the game.

Stop playing and no more bad can happen in the world. The weird, meta-level choice, which could prevent all of your participation in the horrors of Spec Ops: The Line, isn’t acknowledged in the game. It sounds like a cop-out, like telling someone to cover their eyes if a film becomes extra violent. It still happens, whether you see it or not.

For the players who reached the point where the events of Spec Ops: The Line were too despicable, quitting the game is probably a very powerful decision. But for the majority of players, the decision is only strong in hindsight, after you’ve done all the horrible things.

I thought The Banner Saga had answer to the problem. It was so close.

The depressing world of The Banner Saga is full of choices similar to Spec Ops: The Line. They’re all bad, it just depends on how you look at it. The correct answer is completely subjective.

You have to make these decisions throughout the game as your character quickly becomes the leader of hundreds of people traveling from town to town trying to survive the beginnings of an apocalypse. Lots of people die because of your actions.

The Banner Saga’s grim tale is just as clear in the game’s turn-based combat, where the speed of attack and the number of units outweigh calculative strategy. The game isn’t afraid of surrounding your team with enemies that will almost always take several of your fighters with them in death, which gives the victory screen a unnerving tinge of uncertainty every time.

Near the end of the game, my character had seen the worst. He was exhausted, and in my case, was without food, water, and sleep for several days. The damage to his nerves from failing as a leader and the approaching army of enemies at the gates of the town were driving him mad. He solved a riot in the streets not with the righteousness that his people had believed in him for, but by showering all of them, bad or good, with arrows. A massacre was easier than thinking, because thinking is what led to the mess he was in.

He had cracked and his last hope of redemption was the arrival of a mysterious woman who could save them all. He could continue waiting for her as the walls of the town were slowly overrun or he could escape with hope that she might catch up to them if she was really coming, because even her existence was doubtful.

In severe desperation, and by the game letting me choose to rest the days away, I chose to wait for this woman. I waited until we ran out of supplies. I waited until everyone but my closest friends had left. My character was spent, and he wanted to die.

But The Banner Saga wouldn’t let him. Once it became clear the game wouldn’t support my decision I had to move on and escape the town. I felt lied to. For the whole game, the numerical values that were associated with the warriors and clansmen in my group were false. The numbers didn’t matter. The characters in the game acted like we still had hundreds of people following us. We should have died in the town.

I’m left wishing it would have given me a game over screen like it does when you’re defeated in battle. Why can my character only die by fighting? The Banner Saga is as much about leading people as it is about war, why didn’t it support a death that felt natural given the choices it let me make to define my character?

Instead, I had to see the game through to an authored completion that the developers forced me to see. And it was far less affecting than the one I had created myself using the options I was given. Looking back now, all the choices I made are undercut by the artificiality of the game. It’s hard for me to disconnect the way it damaged the larger themes of the game from my appreciation for everything it was going for.

The third option to stop everything, to essentially have my character kill himself was there, but it didn’t follow through. So, maybe Williams’ solution was speaking to the idea that games don’t like to let you fail. It’s a stop-gap answer to a problem with games not representing their themes through the actual interaction. It’s in protest of the game suddenly disregarding your input. I don’t think alienating me was The Banner Saga’s point, but for now, quitting the game is the only choice left. Hopefully more choice-driven games will come around that challenge that idea.

On the Dark Souls resurgance

Dark Souls has made a come back in the last few months leading up to the sequel’s release. Notable people who have dismissed the game from both a distance or after having played it for a few hours, are getting back into it and discovering what it’s really about. It’s like the jocks are discovering that Dungeons & Dragons is actually cool.

Of course, everyone who already gets the game knew that after several hours with it everything clicks into place and the language of Dark Souls switches from being antagonistic to educational, clever even. It’s not like other games. Most games have short tutorials, it’s designed to teach throughout, provided you’re willing to listen.

Similarly, I had a difficult time reading Cloud Atlas’ Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After chapters, where narrator Zachry Bailey speaks in very fictional, but plausible, broken English. It was a hard turn from the rest of the book’s dialect, which felt pretty historically accurate in my narrow knowledge of the early 1800s and 1900s. It took 10 pages or so before Bailey’s accent clicked and imagery of the words returned. And it was somewhere near the end of the whole book that I realized how brilliant author David Mitchell used language as a tool to teach you about a character and the setting.

In Dark Souls, the point where the game really begins to make sense, just like the words in Cloud Atlas, takes much more time, but when it gets there, it hits hard and re-contextualizes much of the game, which is why I also believe Dark Souls demands a second playthrough. On that second time through the Undead Burg, you’ll see that enemy placement and the complex environment are there to teach you. They probably already taught you, but it was more a cerebral understanding you had before you realized the design was always there staring at you while you fumbled through your early attempts.

So is Dark Souls’ inability to speak the same way other games do a flaw? I think that purely depends on taste. I think it’s stunning that a developer like From Software can escape tradition and make a game so vastly different than others and do it well.

But It’s okay to say Dark Souls could be more accessible by explaining itself better. You shouldn’t have to spent 20 hours with it before you like it. It’s incredibly frustrating, just as it is trying to tell what someone who has a thick accent is saying. Sometimes it just comes down to having an open mind, that’s willing to learn and to change.

It’s assuring for me, then, that many people are giving Dark Souls another shot. They’re trying to expand their knowledge of games. Some works take time to interpret, and games have that ability to let you screw up and misunderstand. It lets you do it for its entirety, I actually think failure in the game is blatantly intentional—but that’s another article. Even if it did take them too long, its inspiring that the medium supports a game that can keep its secrets held tight inside the very design of the game, that the best writing can only barely convey, and still surprise and seduce newcomers years after its release.

Nothing but a candy bar

I felt helpless. I went in unprepared, which always turns out to be the downfall of people in situations that involve monsters. We went to find some fellow survivors in a farm house down a dirt road. The zombies were light on the drive there. The farmers weren’t happy with our arrival as we pulled up. I took the risk of moving toward the house when they could have shot me. I had nothing to fight back with other than a gun I had only used once before. My stick broke beating a zombie the previous night.

We were just doing what we were told. I didn’t want to be kicked out of the church with the other survivors. I had no way of living on my own, and my partner was badly injured, stuck to a bed for the last day. What else could I do?

I asked, no I demanded they come back with us. Me? Where did the girl who drove with me go? I had only met her the day before. Maybe she abandoned me. We didn’t talk on the drive here. Did she know? How could she know? I couldn’t waste time. It wasn’t supposed to be this complicated.

They told me to get inside. A horde of them were coming. I immediately felt like the odds were against me. Out of my element. I looked around the house, but I couldn’t pick up the discarded wooden boards. All I had were my arms and my legs to fight against these horrors. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. They’ve done this before right? They’ve survived for two weeks, surely they’ve done this before. One farmer ran upstairs to tend to a wounded farmer friend or brother or someone. The third was down with me. We tried to board up the windows before they arrived. We had only recently finished before the flesh-eating beasts were tearing down our work.

I used my revolver first, I couldn’t go out there and face them. I shot and shot. My bullets were more dangerous than they were. Each shot tore apart the boards, exposing the safety of the house to them. But I had already begun shooting and it was at least narrowing their numbers down. The farmer with me kept it defensive and tended to the broken boards. I kept shooting. I started to miss and the panic set in. My thoughts escaped my moment-to-moment actions and felt distant. My body kept shooting, missing horribly, but my mind was already planning on the inevitable hand-to-hand battle that was next.

Click. Out of bullets.

My mind returned. Someone outside mentioned a larger zombie was approaching. Was it her? It sounded like a man. I could figure this out. I scrambled around the house in search of a weapon, something, anything at all. Damn my unpreparedness.

The big one was standing outside. I could hear its deeper, guttural noises. I knew it was a problem that needed to be faced as quickly as possible. I couldn’t see it through the boards though. I took a breath and rammed open the front door, not realizing my own adrenaline-fueled strength. To my surprise, and likely its too, we met face-to-face. I had no choice but to start slamming my fists into its rotund form. It picked me up and squeezed. I should have died there, but it loosened its grip long enough for me to wriggle out.

I stumbled back through the door, forgetting to close it. It couldn’t fit itself inside. Thank god. One of the farmers ran up to him and got the same treatment as I had just did. He didn’t make a sound, ran through the door, also forgetting to close it, and went back to work. While it was distracted I had given it a few more strikes. Maybe out of anger, maybe out of hope that I could go out with dignity.

I was quickly distracted by the zombies finally crawling through a neglected window. Too many and too fast. I was caught, and one latched onto my neck. Blood everywhere. This was it.

Wait, I had pills! Hope. I plucked them out of my pocket, but as I tried to fiddle with the child-proof lid—damn those things—I was volleyed between the undead beasts. The pills eventually found my mouth and I swallowed. They couldn’t heal the pain fast enough. I knew these things couldn’t help, those liars. I fell in exhaustion, again and again. Each time, I got back up before they could pile on top of me. I was weaker. I searched through my pockets for something to save me. Nothing but a candy bar.

They bit me again. There was more blood on the wooden floor of the farmhouse than inside of me. I fell again, this one felt harder than the rest. They surrounded me. I felt tension, someone pulling me out from under this savage nightmare. It must have been her. But all I could see was there glowing eyes. It kept pulling and pulling and I looked down as my belly began to tear. I went into shock before I could scream as my body was split in two. Damn my unpreparedness.

—-

I was playing State of Decay and thought I’d try something new.

Notes on: Tearaway

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Tearaway is a lot of things. It’s charming, bright, cute, and novel, often all at the same time. It’s also a lot of other things.

1. Tearaway is contradictory. It’s a world made of paper wrapped around a journey where an animate envelope helps animals in order to eventually reach a You, as in you, the player. It’s a game about helping the wildlife in a world made of dead trees, bent and curled into an artist’s vision. Then there’s the irony of a game built, in fiction at least, with old media on a modern electronic device.

2. Tearaway is a love letter to mechanical games? As the game progresses, the input methods become more and more artificial and gamey. A jump button, then a roll button, then a vacuum weapon. And eventually, the game fully inherits its medium and becomes a tricky platformer, not unlike a modern Mario.

3. Tearaway must be about the loss of the purity of tangible, touchable, art, then? A bit pretentious, maybe, but people like to throw around the word “hipster” a lot these days and it might be the best example in game form. In a way it’s almost as final a sentiment as the ending of BioShock Infinite. Here is a game that fighting against itself, irony be damned. Is it developer Media Molecule’s final work? I doubt it.

4. Tearaway is a tragedy, then. It begins so hopeful and pure and sides with the other end of the argument by the end. Which doesn’t make much sense in a medium that only exists because technology has advanced to a point where we can simulate things with computers. I don’t think that invalidates the game, but it surely is interesting.

5. Maybe Tearaway is about the beauty and complexity of the human hand. It’s so articulate and powerful. It can create and destroy. Two things you’re required to do throughout it. But it never demands you draw a certain thing, it only asks. You could draw anything really, and it would accept that. One key moment had me draw a snowflake. I did, and it doused the snowy landscape in my freakish, blue snowflakes—which were really just stars because I lacked the patience to revise my first draft. As soon as I saw my work replicated in the world, I thought of what hideous things I could have drawn instead, and the game even lets you re-do it too, but again, my patience was too little. It even lets you collect and print out paper versions of the objects inside of it for use in reality. See how intricate all this is? You can do it too, with your hands.

6. Okay, instead, maybe Tearaway is some kind of comment on human selfishness. For the entire game you control a character on its way to you, or a camera feed of your face. You, as previously mentioned, create and destroy. The creatures of the world are never not fascinated by your ability to correct wrongs. It’s all about how great you are and ends telling you about all your accomplishments. Thinking about it this way is gross. Video games aren’t the only thing about you these days though. “What’s on your mind?” my Facebook page asks. Twitter used to ask me something similar, now it’s all about gaining followers. Of course, video games too are about you. RPGs are about your imagination, shooters are about your skills, puzzle games are about your intelligence. I don’t want to get too reductive, but it’s possible it’s almost deviously worshiping you for the length of the game to appease a sickening, modern view of being entitled to everything.

So, in conclusion, Tearaway is secretly some kind of devilish thesis statement against the modern, digital era. Or not.

Maybe I’m reading into it too much. Maybe I have no idea what Tearaway is. I do know it’s good, and it’s worth playing.

On The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

People call them “aha! moments”. They’re the moments in games where you figure something out on your own and you feel clever for it. Sometimes it’s applying an item in a new way and sometimes its just finding a solution to a problem you’ve been butting heads with for a while. Good “aha! moments” make you feel like you understand the game better, less good ones feel more like relief.

That’s why I think a lot of people praise the Portal games. Both games have a lot of these moments that make you feel smart. The game is designed around that feeling of discovery. In a lot of ways, it’s a game about learning.

I like games that teach well through their design. It’s rare because throwing up instructional text is safer and easier—which is also two words to describe some fair criticisms of big budget games. We’re told how and when to do things so explicitly in games nowadays that the first 20 minutes are incredibly overwhelming and a real bore for those already familiar. By definition games need to explain mechanics somehow, so I’m not here to fault the games that do it by text. That’s one option. But there’s another way. A more elegant way. And that’s through these “aha! moments.”

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, like Portal, seems designed around these eureka moments. It runs at a much faster pace than previous Zelda games and uses that constraint to emphasize its dungeons. Access to them and their respective items is almost completely open from the start. I spent about a week doing a dungeon a day. Each one was like a puzzle with multiple layers of thought to solve.

The dungeons themselves are incredibly dense. The game uses very simplified geometry and doesn’t get too complex in the arrangement. It works great for the top-down perspective. Any larger and my mental capacity would have failed, and the game would’ve probably been frustrating if I had to revisit areas to simply remember where things were. See, a lot of the dungeons operate on multiple floors. Some require you to jump back and forth from different floors to reach keys and items you couldn’t before. You need to master the whole layout, and in the end, you will. The level design reaches a Dark Souls level of intricacy at times. And I adore Dark Souls’ level design. Absolutely adore it.

In Dark Souls, those “aha! moments” are mental feedback, and Zelda mimics that. Instead of opening a door, which is quite often the case, discovery in A Link Between Worlds also gives you another layer of understanding. It’s almost more rewarding than just progressing further into the dungeon.

When you do finally squeeze the dungeons dry, you get a boss fight. For me, good boss fights are like thesis statements. Even though they go on top, it’s usually best to write them last. They summarize. I think the best boss fights call upon all your previous learning. Bad ones introduce new mechanics, which A Link Between Worlds is guilty of in one particular instance.

Most of A Link Between Worlds’  boss fights are good, although some of them are far too simple for how complex your understanding of an item is. Some of that is the game wanting to be a direct homage to A Link to the Past. Many bosses are very similar to the previous game. I would have liked bosses that really test your knowledge under pressure, but I’m probably a fool to forget how important tradition is to Nintendo.

I should also mention that A Link Between Worlds is the first Zelda game I’ve ever really dug into and finished. It’s very modern compared to the rest of the series. And by that I mean it’s fast and open. It’s crazy to see that a game so different from the others exists, but it’s also great that I can finally have a Zelda game that I find satisfying and incredibly well-designed.

When I finished A Link Between Worlds, I was surprised. I’d like to think I wouldn’t be if I would’ve played any other Zelda before it, but I didn’t so let me have this one. I had many, many, “aha! moments” and I enjoyed every one. It disperses them like some kind of drug I needed a fix on every few hours. It’s just plain fun to explore and conquer the world in a sort of pure sense that was sadly absent from the best experiences I’ve had with games this year. It’s so weird for me to say it considering my history with the series but I like it. I like it a lot.

Notes on: BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part 1

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I wrote down some scattered thoughts about the Burial At Sea Part 1 DLC for BioShock Infinite while I played through it. I’ve cleaned them up and put them below in the same style as freelance writer Brendan Keogh does on his blog.

1. The idea of seeing what Rapture was like before it collapsed is compelling, even if most of it was easy to guess from the many little stories packed into the original BioShock. The playful divide between the people who support Andrew Ryan’s growing objectivism and those who do not is fun to listen to, only because you know what is coming. I feel like it’s too binary, though, maybe even a bit artificial since, at times, it feels like an excuse to develop Fontaine, which leads to the game’s excuse for combat.

2. BioShock Infinite’s ending makes it easy for them to bring back a lot of the systems you use in Columbia to Rapture. Everything from the guns, plasmids, tears, and equipment are at your disposal. Anything goes, really. It’s hard to tell if it’s lazy or acceptable.

3. The combat is poor. There are like five large arenas that have fights that don’t make use of them at all. Almost every fight gives you the upper hand on how you’d like to approach it. On normal difficulty I could kill all of the enemies before they had time to spread out. And because of the easiness, there was little reason for me to use plasmids. I imagine they wanted the one-on-one fight with the Big Daddy to be dramatic. You fight him in a huge room that’s only made for him! But it wasn’t. When he doesn’t stand still, he has the saddest looking move that shoots a drill at you and pulls you in. The Big Daddy fight is robbed of all the ruthlessness they had in the first game. It was incredibly anti-climactic.

4. There’s a new weapon. You hold down the trigger at close range and it explodes enemies. Since I didn’t realize I had the code to unlock the door to it early enough, I barely got to use it. My combat style is to shoot enemies from far away and then whack them like mad when they get close, so I don’t know if I would have used it much anyway.

5. Speaking of codes for doors, the majority of the scenarios have to do with you having to get what is essentially a key to open a door, whether it’s a plasmid or a code. Because of that, the pacing was slow and the combat had no stakes.

6. I feel bad for the people who rushed through it in 2 hours. I dragged it out for twice that (still forgot one damn audio diary) and I thought it was okay. The whole thing would have probably felt a lot more hollow had I just pushed through it. I bought the season pass when it was on sale for like $5. Understand that, so, when I say, purely in terms of the amount of and value of the content, it’s not worth $15.

7. The art design is still stunning. It’s still very grand and awesome. The more I think about what I actually liked about BioShock Infinite, it’s the art. Hearing that Irrational Games built it from scratch makes that $15 price tag make a little more sense, but there’s got to be meat to the all the pretty dressing.

8. There was one really good moment where I was lured by an Infusion, the things that let you upgrade health, shield, or salts—haha, upgrade your salts—, in a room with a bunch of mannequins. You probably see where this is going, but I still jumped when a female mannequin yelled at me and jumped down from the display case with a gun.

9. Believe me, I tried to figure out what happened in the context of BioShock Infinite’s crazy story and I still have no idea. I’m starting to wonder if it really matters. Someone will make a visual guide, right?

10. I can’t tell if the severely limited ammo was not a new thing for BioShock Infinite, a way to make it survival horror-y, or because I am a bad shot. Either way, it was more annoying than tense.

11. There’s still a lot of the weird narrative things where you find ammo and guns in shoe boxes and trash cans. Also, Booker has to have a mask to get into a party and Elizabeth, for some reason, does not. Maybe I missed something.

12. Booker is a bad police investigator. I drank and gambled my way through the whole thing. Meaningful choices in games working as intended.

Image credit: Flickr user Deaf Spacker

I worry about the open world game

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In Grand Theft Auto 5, you can play tennis. You can play golf. You can play darts. You can walk. You can run. You can swim. You can drive. You can fly. The entire range of activities, both high and low, are available to you. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to participate in the story Rockstar Games wants to tell. You don’t have to use the game’s character switch mechanic. There’s a sea of content, of things to do, and it’s all up to you.

This sandbox, this open world, worries me. There’s so much to do in GTA 5, the meaningful parts of it can get clouded. The parts that aren’t just increasing numbers and bars on a character to make them drive or shoot better. The parts where the game is serious about something, whether it’s the act of torture, a character’s frustration with life, or another character’s anger and betrayal. They get lost in the density of the world.

Or worse, they break apart under the reality of your actions. The reuniting of a family with a serial killer isn’t relieving, it’s terrifying. The hesitation of a character when asked to kill someone isn’t dramatic, it’s confusing—I remember the bloody corpses in my wake not an hour ago. All three characters can fly planes, helicopters, operate cranes, forklifts, evade the police, the military, kill without getting caught, and all they want are normal lives? Please.

The open world doesn’t always serve the story. Most of the time, it ruins it. And when games are finding new and interesting ways to tell stories, some not possible in other mediums, I worry that games like GTA 5 set a bad example.

In Gone Home, you never leave the house. You can’t read the books, you can’t take the board games out and play them. Your character has a goal, and she doesn’t stray from it. In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, you move forward in your journey and never look back. You don’t have time to ride goats for hours or sit idle on a bench. In both games, there’s importance to the linearity to the smaller scope, there’s a craft to the illusion of a world just beyond your reach.

Open world games lift that illusion. They give you an abundance of options, and there’s detail in the most granular things. In GTA 5, San Andreas is amazing, beeming with creative talent. From the architecture, to the street design, to the traffic flow, and the various vehicles that pass by. There’s precision to the handles on a glass door versus a wooden door.

Think about the time and the money that created those things. Think about the time and the money that went into Gone Home or Brothers. Are we spending too much on the wrong things?

With $800 million in the first 24 hours, GTA 5’s sales and popularity worry me. I worry that it sends the wrong signal. I worry that creative, affecting game design is being overshadowed by an abundance of content, of things to do. I worry about the open world game.

Still Home

My Gone Home review was challenging to write. How do you write about a game that only asks you to observe? It was difficult not to spoil all the best moments of The Fullbright Company’s debut effort. In the end, I think I did a good job, although I do hope to improve at explaining how the game works in future reviews.

Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer podcast with the game’s writer Steve Gaynor is touching and you should listen to it.

Jason Killingsworth is writing a book about Dark Souls with Press Select. I’m jealous. I want to write a book one day. At least it’s a goal now.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is disappointing, but Chris Plante’s deep dive into the development history of the game isn’t.

I’m getting used to this smartphone business. The screen is nice?

I installed a new hard drive into my PC, and I’m using it to test some game capture. Maybe a “Let’s Play”?

I’m grumpy because I’m not at PAX. Didn’t think I’d regret it, but I do.

Breaking Bad is still rad. The Newsroom is okay. And I returned to The Killing—I forgot I liked that show.

Back to video games, I guess.

A little late

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My feature on the independently developed game Richard & Alice was published at Pixel Enemy. I spoke to the game’s writer Ashton Raze about creating probably one of the best five-year-old characters in games. I actually interviewed him a few months ago, but family complications and job transitions caused the story to be late. I regret that a little bit. I think the story would have been better closer to the game’s release. But it’s up, and I can move on to whatever’s next.

I’m mulling over giving freelance writing another shot. I’m already sitting on some pitches. I just need to send them to some editors. Maybe Monday.

I purchased my first smartphone this week. My previous phone couldn’t handle calendar appointments, let alone “4G” internet. I think this thing will come in handy once I get deeper into freelancing. It turns out, Android is pretty great, if a bit overwhelming.

Oh, and I was also on the Pixel Enemy podcast this week where we talked a lot about pizza. And video games, of course.

Back in the review game

I took a long break from writing reviews. Partly out of frustration with my own writing ability, and partly to explore other forms of writing. My first real return to proper review writing was at GotGame last month.

That said, 400 Days creates five distinct characters to return to in season two with more baggage and nuance than games ten times the length. We learn about its characters just by their body language and their cadence. And Telltale doesn’t stop at its main characters. One example, because it’s not worth revealing the other weirdos you’ll meet, is a rock-and-roll loving, truck-driving, sexist who is also probably an alcoholic. Telltale asks you to trust him with your life for five minutes. He may have turned out to be a cold-hearted murderer, but I kind of liked him.

Review | The Walking Dead: 400 Days

Spartan Assault struggles to sustain the back-and-forth of Halo’s combat loop, the rise and fall of its territorial and kinetic battles. The overhead perspective ruins the surprise of a flanking enemy, the adrenaline of confinement, and the small environments choke the wide-open dynamism of the series’ signature firefights. Enemies often rush toward you or sit behind cover, admittedly a potent tactic in the game’s bottle-necked level design.

Review | Halo: Spartan Assault, GotGame

It was fun breaking back into the rigid structure of reviews. Which is a relieving reaction to have, because I’ll be contributing a lot of them to Pixel Enemy in the coming months. For now, though, I’m writing news there with the occasional feature article.

Right now, I’m reading Nathan Meunier’s book on freelance writing Up Up Dow Down Left Write: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism. So far, it’s good!

I’ve also gotten back into playing Guild Wars 2 for some reason.

After listening to almost all of the Dark Souls season of Bonfireside Chat, I’ve started looking through hosts Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross’ other work. They do a similar podcast about retro games called Watch Out for Fireballs! I just finished the Silent Hill 2 one and now I’m starting up the Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth episode.