Thursday, January 18, 2018

Four distinctive games from 2017

There are a few games that came out in 2017 that were notable to me because they helped me think more flexibly about the function of video games. A lot of games I played in 2017 that didn't come out in 2017 were similarly impressive. Interestingly, some of these games illuminated things for me that apply more to games in other genres. Also, some of them were "games" only nominally - that is, they were heavily linear, and treated the player mainly as an audience for a story; nevertheless, I always found that whatever small role the player does have in those games bears significantly on their experience of that story.

Regarding controls:
What Remains of Edith Finch
Super Mario Odyssey

I mention these games together because the first taught me something about what conditions the way it feels to play a game, and the latter applies that in a number of impressive ways. 

Playing What Remains of Edith Finch (with a controller, at least) is like holding an object that keeps changing its properties. Slow vs. fast, free vs. restricted, smooth vs. angular, fluid vs. staccato. The instruments of the controller, the rhythms and patterns with which you operate them, and the way the animations correspond with your actions all define the way the game feels. The variety of the Finch house and the characters' lives registers because it gives you a direct experience of different objects and locations therein. 

This shifting of texture is less sustained in Super Mario Odyssey, but it's still there every time you control a new enemy. Unlike Edith Finch, which is trying to augment its narrative force, Super Mario Odyssey is trying to stimulate the player's creativity. To that end, it gives you a wide move set that changes depending on the level you're in, presents you with problems whose solutions range from free-form to highly specific. It encourages you to learn the full scope of what you can do, and then sets you loose to apply them as you please. And in the same way Edith Finch's sensory variety makes it rewarding to explore the Finch house, Super Mario Odyssey makes it rewarding to act on your curiosity. It's also relentlessly positive, from obvious touches like the punchy music and animation whenever you get a moon to smaller ones like applause that plays whenever you collect a lot of coins in a row. 

Regarding consequence:
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Night in the Woods

These games could scarcely be more different. They have less in common than Edith Finch and Super Mario Odyssey do, and those games only resemble each other in one very specific respect. Breath of the Wild is an open-world RPG that gives the player so much freedom they could run away from the final boss. Night in the Woods does give the player a measure of control over the story they see, but that story is composed of vignettes that always go the same way. Breath of the Wild's Link has no memories, and the personality traits he displays in dialogue options and animations are childlike and utilitarian. He's largely a blank slate whose will is defined by the player's will. Night in the Woods, meanwhile, is defined by the strength of the main character Mae's personality: the story's conflict, and the limits of what can happen in it, are all set by her. I group these games together because they were by far my two favorite games to come out last year, and they both appealed to me because of how they handle the concept of the player's choices having consequence. 

Breath of the Wild makes you feel like your actions have genuine consequence, which means it doesn't begin to feel inert and empty as quickly as similarly massive open-world games. I've played Grand Theft Auto 4, Saints Row 2, and The Elder Scrolls, and while I appreciated them for a while, they eventually became unpalatable. Their worlds can be satisfying to explore, but the activities available therein cease to be rewarding after a while. 

Breath of the Wild gets repetitive after a while, but remains rewarding because you're always in need. Your weapons break, so you always need to pick up more; Link is rather fragile, so you use up healing items quickly. Whatever you find when you go to a new place is, more often than not, going to be something you have a genuine use for. The difficulty scales such that whatever weapons you might be able to pick up in a given location will be appropriately strong for that location, giving you some room to improvise in combat and conserve your stronger weapons you might need for other parts of the game. 

The purpose of games like this isn't to end, but to be exhausted by the player. I wouldn't say it's a weakness of GTA or similar games that they're exhausted more quickly than Breath of the Wild, though I would say it's a strength of Breath of the Wild that it can sustain itself for so long. 

Moreover, Breath of the Wild excels in ways that a lot of other open-world games I've played severely fall short. Most of the shrines exhibit good level design, and both the shrines and many other parts of the game are very good at letting the player figure out how to do things from subtle clues. There are a lot of mechanics, each with a variety of uses, and the game rewards you for experimenting without forcing you to adopt only one solution to a given problem. 

Contrast this with something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in which most mechanics have limited or situational utility, and many of them become redundant when the player gains access to a different mechanic. Skyrim wants to give the player freedom to explore, but also freedom to customize their character in a variety of ways, which makes redundancies necessary. Breath of the Wild doesn't have this problem because it doesn't have character customization, but it compensates by including a lot of variety into the different kinds of weapons and strategies available to you.

Breath of the Wild works so well as an open-world game because the world contains things to do, and those things feel like they're worth doing. Night in the Woods works as a restricted narrative game because it makes you feel like you should have control at points where you don't.

Mae does a lot of awkward, cruel, and self-destructive things in Night in the Woods, and it feels like the player should be able to get around them by choosing the right dialogue options, or simply not doing them. But you have to: like NieR, the game refuses to allow you progress unless you do things that sometimes feel wrong.

The story of What Remains of Edith Finch is enhanced by giving you a direct sensory experience of the Finch house; the story of Night in the Woods is enhanced by giving you a cognitive experience of being unable to do what you think would be good for you, or what you think would make the world better than it is.

Every character in Night in the Woods - Mae's parents; her friends Bea, Gregg, Angus, and Selma; the town pastor Karen; and even the game's villains - struggles with being restricted by the postindustrial town where the game is set. They have family ties, moral convictions, or still haven't saved enough money to move somewhere else, or are adjusting to a new job after abruptly losing their previous one.

What about Mae herself? She often struggles to say the right thing, tells unwelcome jokes, hesitates to talk about her problems or own up to her mistakes, and constantly does reckless things. What restricts her is internal. To some degree it's just a matter of failing to do a good job dealing with the stress of life; but by the end of the game we realize it's also a matter of mental illness. It's a topic Night in the Woods treats on only briefly, but still with more insight and sensitivity than most things do, within and outside the realm of video games.

One thing that surprised me about Night in the Woods was that Bea saw more good in Mae than I did. I don't mean to sound judgmental towards Mae, but part the reason I liked her was because of the distance the game puts between her and the player by refusing to allow you to avert her destructive impulses. But Bea appreciated Mae's efforts to do the right thing, the character traits those efforts reflected, and some of her other qualities more than she disdained the problems she causes.

Night in the Woods shows that both persistence and change can hurt people, and we can't always control when one or the other comes about in our lives. The feeling of being restricted and the feeling of life slipping away can both cause anxiety and disdain. These things will always be around, for everyone, but you can build faculties and relationships that help you get past them reliably when they arise. There are things you can do to enjoy life. They're all imperfect and none of them last forever, but Night in the Woods still thinks they're pretty amazing.

Hopefully you can see why I think there's some vague resemblance between the reason I liked Breath of the Wild and the reason I liked Night in the Woods, even though the two games have almost nothing in common. I think it's easier to justify the claim that What Remains of Edith Finch and Super Mario Odyssey have something in common, because there the resemblance is more tangible than introspective. These aren't necessarily the best games I played from 2017 (though Night in the Woods, Breath of the Wild, and Super Mario Odyssey were my three favorites, in order of precendence), but they did all make me think about what there is to appreciate about video games.

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