Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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Category: Games

The Uneasy Relationship Between Movies and Video Games


Over at Kill Screen, I take a look at blockbuster cinema, how it’s influenced gaming, and what it means for players and viewers.

The Insidious Influence of Blockbuster Cinema on Videogames

UPDATE: Also cross-posted over at The Atlantic.

Digital Morality


I recently started playing through Mass Effect again, and I plan to run through the entire trilogy. I’ve played the series once before, but I found myself missing the experience of being in that world, so I created a new character and dove back in. I opted for a female protagonist this time, but I’m still playing the game much like I did last time, which is to say I’m trying to be as good as possible without ruling out the possibility of force or intimidation. The game lets you make choices that fall along a basic continuum, with kind or “good” choices turning you into a Paragon and harsh or “bad” ones making you a Renegade. You can also usually choose a neutral response in most encounters, resulting in no real moral change to your character.

I find myself playing as a “good guy” for a number of reasons. Part of it’s the control: the more charming and persuasive you are, the more you can decide the outcome of a situation simply by talking your way out of it. That’s a compelling part of the moral logic that doesn’t get a lot of press. Part of it is also achievement-based: I want to unlock certain narrative paths for my character that are only possible by pursuing certain moral extremes. Mostly, though, I just like the feeling of being good. The writing in the game is effective enough that negative moral choices carry an appropriate sting, and I’m not as comfortable as I would’ve been a few years ago with bullying my way through the story.

Some friends of mine remarked that the morality system in the game felt limited and restrictive, though, and that choosing to be good even for the sake of a few Paragon-related achievements was nevertheless constricting. I don’t think they’re wrong, but I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. The game’s restrictiveness in this area isn’t a bug, but a feature. It’s one of the things that makes it feel real.

What else, after all, are moral choices but opportunities for us to wage an internal battle between love and anger, restraint and release, honesty and selfishness? When you butt heads with a partner or colleague or family member, your first instinct might be to snap back in retaliation. You know it’s not a good idea, though, and the benefit of just a few seconds’ thought can help you chart a better path. The game gives you an opportunity to practice that: every conversation and encounter hinge upon you, and dialogue halts while you weigh your responses. It’s the chance to pause and examine your motives we rarely take in real life. The game’s pace forces you not merely to pick an action but to consider the consequences it will have on the other characters. Is it really so hard to see the parallel between these scripted interactions and the much more unpredictable ones we confront every day? Do we really need reminding that love and good are often about shouting down the voices of greed and oppression that echo in our heads? The game’s version of a moral compass might be rudimentary, sure, but it’s anything but ineffective. Doing the right thing often means not doing the wrong thing. It’s as much about inaction as action. The pursuit of goodness is nothing if not defined by control.

When Games Don’t End


As I write this in the final week of December 2012, I’ve been playing Borderlands 2 for about two months. I haven’t played every day — I even took a week’s vacation to New Mexico during that time — but I have spent a considerable amount of time with the game. I’ve played through the entire “main” game twice: the first time in the game’s standard mode and the second in what it calls “True Vault Hunter Mode,” in which the narrative is the same but the enemies are tougher and the rewards are more lucrative. I’ve also completed the first section of downloadable content (DLC, one of which is pictured above), which adds more missions, and I’m more than halfway through the second DLC. The third will be available for download in January, with a fourth coming sometime around summer. And if that weren’t enough, it looks likely that the game will eventually receive another round of DLC areas with even more missions and stories.

Where does it stop?

I should clarify that I’ve had — that I continue to have — a great time with Borderlands 2. It’s a sprawling, challenging game, and it’s got a sense of humor that’s a welcome break from the legions of overly serious military shooters and strategy titles that flood the market. It also allows for a huge variance in experience from one player to another: every time you play through an area, you’ll find new gear (weapons, helpful items, etc.) in new places. It’s never the same game twice, which means you have to keep your eyes open and use your environment to survive. That reliance on player initiative, combined with an ability to craft character traits based on your style of playing, makes the game feel truly rewarding.

Yet I find myself wondering about the latest shift in gaming and game communities, and what it might mean. When I was a boy, games were mostly dull tests of reflexes as evidenced in your ability to get a character to jump from one platform to another. (Early ones didn’t even let you save your progress.) The advanced platforms of the past few years, though, have allowed for graphical and narrative shifts that produced some amazing games. We went from classical “game” to more proper forms of “story.”

Borderlands 2, though, with all its peripherals, is a little like a theme park: the goal isn’t story so much as endless experience. For instance, when you go to Disney World, you can see the heroes and villains from animated movies walking around, acting in stage shows, and doing other things to vaguely re-create the narrative you remember from the film. Even though the movie is over — the hero’s learned a lesson, the bad guy’s been defeated — the artifacts from the movie are held in a kind of suspended state that lets you interact with them forever. In Borderlands 2, you can fight certain bosses over and over again to try and earn better rewards, you can play through the entire single-player storyline twice, and you can keep adding to your experience with add-ons and downloads that give you more to do and explore. As a result, it’s possible to watch the game’s supporting characters come unstuck from the narrative and fulfill seemingly conflicting roles based on how much you’re willing to play. For example: you can switch between the game’s main story and the DLC areas at any time, meaning you can find some of the same characters in two different places, telling you two different things about two different missions. Or there’s the fact that, after you complete the second playthrough, you’re deposited right back in the game, with all remaining side quests (missions not essential to the completion of the game) and DLC areas scaled up to the maximum skill level. So you can defeat the final villain, then go back to your home base and listen to the other characters talk about how much they’re looking forward to you defeating the final villain. It becomes a deconstruction of what we think of as a gaming narrative and becomes a new kind of hybrid, one that emphasizes story and scope even as it recalls the early days of games as pure reflex-building escapism.

On one level, I appreciate and enjoy the size of titles like Borderlands 2. On another, though, there’s something to be said for game as finished narrative. The Mass Effect series is one of the best franchises and most engaging experiences in modern gaming, and I believe a big part of that is because the three games work as a trilogy to tell one long, complex story about interstellar war and peace. The final game’s downloadable content offered more arenas for those who wanted to team up for battle simulations online, but they didn’t affect the story. (The only one related to the main narrative simply expanded some dialogue and scenes at the end of the final game.) When I finished Mass Effect 3, I felt the same bittersweet blend of satisfaction and regret that always comes at the close of a good story. It’s not that I don’t want to return to that world, but that, after what I’ve played through, it wouldn’t make sense.

Borderlands 2, though, has no end, at least not that I can see. I’m still playing the game to collect some new weapons and experiences, though my character is currently at the maximum allowable skill level. It looks likely that upcoming DLC releases will increase the cap on character levels, but with another batch of DLC releases apparently in the works, who’s to say the cap won’t increase again? Borderlands 2 isn’t the only game to function like this, either. Off the top of my head, the Assassin’s Creed series (at least the titles I’ve played in it) drops you right back into the game’s open world after you wrap the main storyline. You can finish side quests or just run around for the hell of it.

I’m not sure this is bad, but it is weird, when you think about it. Even old games that were light on real story still had a termination point. When you take away that finish line — when the phrase “I beat the game” doesn’t even apply anymore — you do something to the fundamental nature of gameplay. It’s a little like the way modern Marvel movies are strung together to create a seemingly endless story. If you can never finish it, what do you call it? At a certain point, doesn’t it stop being a game and become something else?

My Gaming Year in Review, 2012


I played all or part of 18 games in 2011, but by July of this year I was already at 16 games, so I figured I was in for a high total. Yet I only finished the year at 19. Part of it was because my consumption slowed down in the fall, but it’s also because I spent most of the last quarter playing Borderlands 2. It’s a huge, fantastic game, and the variety of gameplay and downloadable content proved addictive.

If 2011 was about me rediscovering what I wanted to get out of games (chiefly, a good story augmented by nice mechanics), then 2012 was about me learning about new ways to play those games. I used to favor as much order and structure as possible in the way I consume media: the CDs I’ve hung onto are dutifully alphabetized; I prefer watching series from the first episode instead of beginning in medias res; I like to finish a book before starting another; etc. But I’ve loosened in the past year or so, and accepted the fact that it can be just as entertaining and edifying to shift between two books based on mood as it is to work through one at a time. (I have an easier time multitasking with nonfiction, though; I still prefer to read novels without cluttering them with other narratives.) Accordingly, I jumped around in my gaming a lot more in 2012 than ever before, and I let myself off the hook for dropping games quickly if they didn’t engage me. As such, there’s a difference in this list between games I left unfinished, meaning I plan on returning to them later, and those I simply quit with no intention of finishing or replaying.

I also took chances on some cheap buys and below-the-radar titles, and I experimented more with games purchased via Xbox Live Arcade. I came across some pretty mediocre games, but nothing truly terrible. I also spent time with one of the best games I’ve ever played, as well as some fantastic titles I wouldn’t have known about were it not for the suggestions and supplies of friends. The year had more hits than misses.

Mass Effect 2 (finished)
I spent a blissful few weeks at the beginning of the year working through Mass Effect 2. The first title in the series was wonderful, but it was also a reminder of how little experience I really had with RPGs. When I announced on Facebook that I’d finished the first game, friends asked which love interest I’d pursued; I hadn’t even known that was an option. I learned the hard way that RPGs like this one aren’t just about giving you control over your environment, but in letting you be the engine of your own story. When I played Mass Effect 2, I made sure to spend time with all my companions, drawing out their backstories and learning how to help them. I got sucked into the romantic subplot, and I became obsessed with winning the loyalty of everyone else on my ship by helping them succeed in their own side quests. (I earned favor from all of them.)

Most of all, though, I was blown away by the depth and texture of the story. Mass Effect let you pursue a number of story options and character traits (good vs. bad), but you were still working for one form of the government or another, whether you chiefly identified yourself as an Alliance ambassador or a Spectre agent. But Mass Effect 2 detonated all that, putting you on the outside of the system and forcing you to wonder who you were working for and how much they were telling you. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the series, full of bittersweet reunions and tough learning experiences. I absolutely adored this game.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (finished, sold)
Admittedly, any big adventure title was going to pale after Mass Effect 2, but still, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was a decent title that didn’t quite hit all the right notes for me. I enjoyed AC2, but Brotherhood suffered from trying to keep things going by picking up the story in the same moment the previous game ended. That’s well and good, but it felt weird to have to work through the game’s introductory here’s-how-you-do-things missions just a couple months after finishing a game with the exact same controls. I liked the revenue system that let you build up money by renovating the city, but I wasn’t wild about the fickleness of some of the Borgia tower missions. A fun title, but not great or inventive.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (unfinished)
I spent a few days with this one, getting to around level 10 or so, before realizing two things: 1) this was a big, beautiful game, and 2) this was going to take a lot of time. I liked the gameplay and story, but I wanted to take a break and come back when I had more space in my schedule to devote to playing. That didn’t really happen, though, so I think I’ll give it another go in 2013.

Borderlands (finished)
This was a damn fun game. Just enough customization and strategy to keep it from being a simple run-and-gun, but not enough to weigh you down. Tons of world-exploring and mayhem, topped off with a nice sense of humor. The ending was a little too dated for me, by which I mean it felt too much like a game from 20 years ago that would require you to kill a major boss by repeating a few moves ad nauseam (shoot, hide, jump) instead of employing some strategy. Overall, though, it was a great experience, and it inspired me to check out the sequel.

Mass Effect 3 (Collector’s Edition) (finished)
I was so excited about this game that I preordered the collector’s edition. I’ve bought maybe a handful of brand-new games in my life, but the price was worth it. If Mass Effect 2 was The Empire Strikes Back, then Mass Effect 3 was solidly Return of the Jedi. It’s a return to a more rigid interpretation of good vs. evil, though there’s still a nice amount of nuance and choice available to you as a player. The gameplay felt a little easier than it did in the series’ second entry, though (and they both felt more forgiving than the original Mass Effect). It was great to revisit old characters and get some closure on certain stories, though I’d have liked a bit more resolution on the romantic path I’d taken. (Possible spoiler: I imported the same character I used in the first two games, a male Shepherd who had a relationship with Miranda, and I kept waiting for either a tearful goodbye or long-earned homecoming. Ah well.) I also wasn’t nuts about the fact that I had to play online multiplayer rounds to boost by “Galaxy at War” status in the main game. To me, that felt too much like an obvious grab by the studio to encourage in-game purchases, and it marred the main narrative. It’s a very good game, though, and a strong end to a story that I spent ~100 hours playing.

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My Gaming Year in Review, 2011

I bought an Xbox 360 in December 2010, though I already owned a few games for the system. My former roommate had one, and we lived together for four years, so it made sense to pick up a few used titles to play when he wasn’t using it. However, he and I parted ways in the fall of 2009, so I went quite a while without playing video games. It had been even longer since I’d owned a gaming system: I sold my PlayStation 2 in summer 2004 to help defray the cost of moving to California after college, meaning I hadn’t been anything remotely like a real gamer in years. I knew I wanted to get back into gaming, but I also wasn’t sure what kind of gamer I’d become. I spent the year finding out what I like and don’t about games, as well as discovering just how much my gaming preferences have changed.

What follows is a mostly chronological list of the games I played in 2011:

Medal of Honor: Airborne (unfinished, sold)
One of the carryover titles I sold soon after I got my own Xbox was Medal of Honor: Airborne. I was a huge fan of first-person shooters growing up, especially the Medal of Honor series, so I’d picked this up years earlier while living with a roommate. I knew when I fired it up this time, though, that my days with simplistic games stuffed with infinitely spawning enemies were at a close. I still like a good combat game, and I’m not even averse to playing through something as narratively derivative as a World War II shooter laden with hilariously somber quotes about the cost of battle. But I want a shooter to be a real game, by which I mean a challenge I am asked to solve. Just running around and triggering waves of enemies (or, equally troublesome, their elimination) by hitting hidden checkpoints is pointless. There’s no strategy, no thrill. It’s just mindless explosions. I’ve got a feeling I won’t be returning to the MoH series for quite a while.

Burnout Paradise (unfinished)
Leaving a racing game unfinished isn’t the same as quitting on a narrative. Burnout Paradise is meant to be played in discrete chunks. It’s a great game, too, and one of the very few racing titles I like. (I got hooked on the series with Burnout Revenge.) I like the open-world set-up that lets you start challenges whenever you want or just drive the roads to explore and set speed records. The challenges are more interesting than typical races, too, involving stunts and crashes. It’s a solid title.

The Orange Box (unfinished)
I bought this just to get my hands on a copy of Portal again, and the game remains as pleasing and frustrating as ever. Pleasing because it demands concentration and smarts as you build out the moves in your head you will need to execute; frustrating because too many of the solutions rely not on intellect but on twitchy reflexes. This problem was solved in the sequel, which I loved.

Fallout 3 (finished)
An amazing game, and the first title to really show me the possibility of open-world storytelling. I fell in love with the postapocalyptic wasteland of Fallout 3, and I was enamored of the karma system that let you influence the world around you through your actions. I also really liked the mix of RPG and FPS in the combat system, which let me stack moves with the game’s special targeting system or just fight it out in real time. Great powers, great choices, great story. The enemies scaled up as you went along, too, though there seemed to be a plateau at the end. Once you level up past a certain point, you can take down most enemies with some basic strategy (though I will never forget the genuine worry I felt when I had to fight mirelurks). My only real complaint is that the main narrative seemed to reach a point of no return toward the end, and while I thought I’d have time to explore the world some more between missions, I found myself rocketed toward the end. (Though that also meant recruiting an ally in Fawkes, which meant mowing through enemies like so much grass.) In a lot of ways, 2011 was the year I relearned how to play games.

The Beatles: Rock Band (unfinished)
I had to. Great songs and interface, though the Beatles-style guitar controller isn’t quite as good as the previous Rock Band models. The buttons don’t have quite enough give, but that could just be a fluke with my hardware.

Fallout: New Vegas (finished, sold)
I was so excited to play this after loving Fallout 3, which made my disappointment that much greater when I discovered an unwieldy, messy game. The maps were poorly layered (the map on the HUD was never clear about whether certain areas adjoined each other or if one was inside the other), the story was far too broad and complicated, and the overstuffed narrative led to burnout long before the game ended. I powered through out of sheer determination. Once I saw how things would end, I loaded an old save and maxed my persuasion skills (I usually load up on charm when I play an RPG to take advantage of more character loyalties and dialogue options) so that I could pass every speech check from there to the end. Then I just talked both final bosses out of fighting me. I’d have tried to fight them, but my companion dog vanished and couldn’t be found, thanks to a glitch in the game. Not a title I’d be willing to replay.

Alan Wake (unfinished)
This came as a free download with my Xbox, but I wasn’t too intrigued. I played through the first level or two, but it was a bit heavy on the cut-scenes for my taste. I don’t mind cinematics that forward a narrative; these just seemed like padding.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (unfinished, sold)
I will always remain somewhat of a sucker when it comes to the opportunity to wield a lightsaber and fling objects with my mind. Plus, this was maybe $5 used at GameStop. Still, it got old quickly. Some fun Star Wars flair aside, it’s a pretty repetitive button-masher with fiendishly hard bosses (typical for a Star Wars game) that become harder to beat when the game takes over the camera and limits your movements and sightline. I’m curious about the sequel, but only mildly.

Gears of War (unfinished, sold)
This was another bargain-bin pickup that I remembered from playing at a friend’s house years before. I found it at turns too maddening and too simple, and the erratic AI of my teammates grew tiresome. Not a big loss.

Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (revisits)
I revisited these on a few occasions throughout the year just to have a palette cleanser. I stand by what I said about needing more from a game than just bodies and bullets, but these remain reliable guilty pleasures when I need to really unplug in times of high stress.

Halo 3 (finished, sold)
This was the first Halo game I’d played all the way through, and though I liked a lot of the combat situations (I was especially taken by the aerial stuff, which totally took me by surprise), I found the actual play-through to be sluggish and uninvolving. Now, obviously, the caveat is that I was fresh to the series, so maybe with the previous two installments under my belt I’d have been more forgiving of the experience. I think not, though. It’s a pretty game, but a pretty standard run-and-gun.

Portal 2 (finished)
As challenging and as wonderful to play as you’ve heard. The game ditches the nail-biting mechanics of the original in favor of big rooms that give you all the time in the world to solve the puzzles inside. The new additions — cubes that redirect lasers, bridges made of light, and a number of gels that alter the physical properties of surfaces — are physically pleasing like few other game objects, but the real triumph is the way the producers have made a very linear story feel like a giant world that’s under your control. Rooms are designed to push you along a specific path, and there’s only one way to win the game, but there are many ways to play it, and that’s what makes it so rewarding. My favorite section is the middle third, in which you navigate through staggering caverns while playing tests that introduce a 1960s-era story and a host of new tools to use. A fantastic experience.

Red Dead Redemption (finished)
This has to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. Period. The gorgeous open world is a joy to behold, and you can ride what feels like forever through the open West without suffering load screens or frame lags as you move between regions. On top of that, the generous amount of side quests and mini-games make the world of New Austin and its environs feel completely at the player’s disposal. This was a game I could craft as I saw fit. I loved the honor and fame systems that let you choose how to morally navigate the world; I chose to play as a good guy, largely because it’s a lot easier to move through the game’s world when the merchants respect you and outlaws fear you. (Not to mention that it’s a pain in the ass to fend off bounty hunters and law enforcement.) The combat’s great, too, and the escalating levels of Dead Eye made for nice challenges. Above all, the story was strong, and I found myself hooked on learning what would happen to John Marston on his long journey home. Just about perfect.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (finished)
Good game. Not great, but good. The combat’s solid, and I loved being able to play as Batman while swinging between gargoyles and taking out henchmen. Yet I found the boss levels to be, well, overly traditional “boss levels” in a classic platformer sense. I never quite got over the whiplash between giant maps that welcomed exploration and limiting battles that required a monotonous pattern of running, jumping, and throwing Batarangs. Still, well worth playing, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Assassin’s Creed II (finished)
I briefly played Assassin’s Creed a few years ago, and I found it fun but stressful. Looking back, though, I realize it’s because back then I was more interested in shooters and open combat and less willing to try a game that asked me to be OK with running and hiding from major threats. (After you assassinate big targets, you pretty much have no choice but to high-tail it through the village and go to ground.) I don’t remember what inspired me to pick this one up aside from its high critical and consumer reviews and a desire to check out a franchise rumored to be good, but whatever it was, I’m glad I followed the urge. This turned out to be a wonderful game with dazzling physics, great puzzles, and a strong narrative to augment the gameplay. The combat was always a little wonky — it’s usually easier to just run up and assassinate someone rather than engage them in a straight-up fight — but fighting is downplayed here, anyway. The real fun is running around and exploring the maps, climbing everything in sight (seriously, everything), and using a variety of learned techniques to distract your enemies and turn the city’s crowds against them. Tons of fun. I just purchased the third entry, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and I’ll likely check out Revelations after that.

Mass Effect (finished)
A great friend of mine urged me to play this for months, finally loaning me his copy to make sure I did it. I’ve already thanked him profusely for making me see the light. This is a killer RPG with great first-person combat and exploration, and it’s the kind of game that I really wouldn’t have enjoyed before now. The scope’s enormous, but what really won me was the variety of gameplay options and narrative choices at key moments. There’s also not a lot of hand-holding, which shows a respect for the gamer; after a few tutorials, you’re expected to just jump in and get it, which was awesome. Some repetitiveness did creep in during the side quests, which all seemed to take place in identically designed bunkers and mines. Still, that’s a minor reservation The game’s an epic space opera with memorable characters and legitimately tough choices: I found I felt good when I could please my teammates and sad when I had to leave some behind. That’s the sign of a good game.

L.A. Noire (unfinished, sold)
This was a disappointing way to end the year, though I’m currently on to other, better games. L.A. Noire‘s biggest failing is that it pretends to be an open-world game that puts you in charge of the narrative (not unlike a lot of the other RPG/FPS combos I played in 2011), but in reality it’s a narrowly focused game that’s essentially idiot-proof. The story revolves around Cole Phelps, a dickish LAPD cop who shuffles between desks as you guide him through cases and try to unravel ever larger mysteries. The trouble is that the story is too much of a mess. As I worked through cases, I would want to interview certain suspects only to be told they were unavailable; other times, I’d know that the likely suspect was probably innocent, but the case would resolve and end without my consent before I had time to question my other suspects. I knew I was being shuttled toward a “twist” that would reveal a killer on the loose and the wrong man behind bars, but that twist would’ve been a lot more believable if the guys I’d arrested actually had enough motive and evidence against them to be guilty. In addition, the game seemed to think I was an idiot. When tasked with deciphering location-based clues, my on-screen persona would eventually feed me the right answer; when pursuing subjects on foot, I was reminded what buttons to press to capture them (though, in another annoying twist, I was only allowed to tackle them when the game wanted me to, which it announced via the prompts); and so on. It’s a great idea for a game, but the execution’s awful. I quit halfway through and didn’t look back.

The Best: Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, Assassin’s Creed II, Portal 2, Mass Effect
The Worst: L.A. Noire, Gears of War, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Fallout: New Vegas