Half Life 2: for Adults Only

Though compared to most it’s a relatively new medium, video games already have quite a few titles in their ranks that are deemed masterpieces or classics. Some of the newer ones are the Last of Us, Breath of the Wild, and Overwatch. If we go back in recent decades, we can include titles in that list like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Super Mario 64, Halo, and the list goes on and on. These are titles that, when you call yourself a gamer, you’re expected to have played, or at least have a decent knowledge of.

Valve’s Orange Box collection has been burning a hole in my backlog for a few years now. A close friend of mine sold me a bunch of old games he had played and didn’t want anymore, and among them was that. For those that don’t know, the Orange Box includes Half Life 2, it’s two expansion packs, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. I played Portal a few years ago, and TF2 is a multiplayer so that I don’t really consider to be part of my “backlog”. Half Life 2 however, got lost amidst a lot of other titles I was trying to add to my portfolio… until I recently popped the game into my console.

 

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I started the game and immediately took a few things in. Even for an old game, the sound and art design both felt surprisingly… clean. Yes, I could certainly tell that some voice actors had been double booked, and a few textures looked a little muddier than they would nowadays, but even my wife was surprised that HL2 had been released almost 15 years ago. From a technical standpoint, the game holds up.

I walked into HL2 having never played the first, but the plotline wasn’t hard to get a handle on. My silent protagonist, Gordon Freeman, helped open a wormhole that let some bad aliens through. They tried to take over earth. They succeeded. Now there’s only a small group of freedom fighters that are willing to stand up to the oppressive “Combine”, and they’re very outmatched. Gordon, however, is something of a legend because of the one-man warfare he waged in the first Half Life, and every time you walk into a room you’re met with phrases like “Are you him? Are you really Gordon Freeman?” If nothing else, I could tell my ego was going to enjoy this game.

The gameplay itself, however, felt like a solid, yet pretty generic first-person shooter. Yes its crisp, yes the enemy AI is great, but the game didn’t offer me anything new… at first. I think I went into HL2 with such rose-tinted glasses, in no small part thanks to hearing about how legendary this game was from everyone and their mom over the years, that I expected to be absolutely blown away by something new and life changing.

Needless to say, I didn’t get that. But with that being said, as I played through the main title and its two expansions immediately after, I very quickly realized this game had earned its praise. And to accurately explain that, I need explain the title of this article in a bit more detail.

The phrase “Adults Only” in video games can often be found amidst gasps and scandalous glances. For those that don’t know, an “A-O” game rating is the equivalent of an NC-17 film. It’s a very rare occurrence, and is reserved only for the games that have the most extreme amounts of violence and sexual content. Half Life 2 is only rated “M”, so what did I discover to make such an accusation? Is it the steamy, over-the-top full nude scene between Gordon and and the lovely Alyx? Or perhaps using the gravity gun to tear the entrails out of an enemy and throw it back at them?

 

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Oh Gordon, talk dir- oh wait, you don’t talk. Uhhh, sign dirty to me? Hum dirty to me? Blink three times for dirty?

 

… of course not, because those things don’t happen. Honestly I’m surprised Half Life 2 isn’t rated “T”, it’s a pretty mild game content-wise. No when I say it’s for “Adults Only” I’m not talking about an ESRB rating… I’m talking about the gameplay itself. And in order to convey what I mean by that, I’m going to reference the two games that bookended my HL2 playthrough: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Despite the hate the series has received in recent years (mostly thanks to beautiful catastrophe that was Unity), I am a huge fan of the AC series. It’s one of those guilty pleasure games I play when I don’t want to be challenged and I want my hand held. Playing AC is like going through a historic power trip. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and after getting a few titles in the franchise under your belt, it’s familiar. Though the series has definitely evolved over the years, the core gameplay is undeniably the same. Because of this, I not only was able to breeze through Black Flag’s campaign, but I had completed almost half the side missions before barely clearing a story mission. I am at the point in that series where I don’t even have to think or strategize. I can look at the building layout, see who my target is, and they’ll barely be able to blink before I’m having that infamous “AC Death” conversation with them.

 

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Bob! How are you man! Wife and kids doing good? The weather is gorgeous today. It’s so convenient how your guards are letting us just chat like this.

 

Half Life 2 never, ever made me feel comfortable. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I was jumpy the whole time (although don’t get me started on those freaking head crabs), but I never knew what was coming next. There was never a point in that game where I felt like I could predict exactly what was ahead. I turned every corner cautiously, my shotgun ready for anything. Every upcoming area was heavily scrutinized before walking into it, trying to ensure I didn’t dive headlong into an ambush. Even still, HL2 surprised me on numerous occasions, even after I’d clocked over 10 hours into the main campaign and was well into the expansions. I never felt safe, every checkpoint was met with a huge sigh of relief, and it always felt like an accomplishment when I realized I was going in the right direction. Actually, that’s the other thing the game did a great job of in terms of feeling “fresh”: even though it’s a linear game, Valve designed the areas and maps so well that you never are exactly sure if you’re going the right way. Whereas modern games practically have a gigantic neon sign and and NPCs screaming “I AM PRETTY SURE IF YOU WANT TO FIND THE NEXT AREA, YOU SHOULD GO THROUGH HERE”, HL2, always let you stumble onto the correct path yourself. It wanted you to figure out where to go, not tell you. Realizing you were on the right path came with a huge amount of satisfaction.

The game I played after HL2 was Tomb Raider: Underworld. Underworld is the final game in the “Legends Trilogy”, the second iteration of Lara Croft. Though it can’t hold a candle to the newer Tomb Raider series, or something like the Uncharted games, as someone who grew up with Lara’s brash, confident, double-desert-eagle-wielding era, these older iterations of her hold a special place in my heart. I’d completed both TR: Legends and TR: Anniversary (the first two titles of the trilogy) awhile ago, so I figured it was time to round out the series. Like the first two, the game is comprised of some decent to great puzzles, fun platforming, and less-than-impressive combat. Yet again, like AC but in a different way, the gameplay felt safe. It felt predictable. The world didn’t seem to run in a way that made sense for the real world, but it felt 100% like a game. Ledges are not only conveniently crumbled exactly how I need them to be, but they’re even aged to all be the exact same color so that I can clearly see where I need to jump. Puzzles, though by no means boring, never made me feel like I had to think about them. “I’m missing four gears for this machine. There are four towers. I bet I know where those gears are.”

 

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Take note architects.

 

It felt set up, it felt like Jigsaw from the Saw movies had built every level and was watching me run through the motions the whole time. It wasn’t organic, it all felt very false. The puzzles in Half Life 2, however, never felt that way. In fact, it almost feels insulting to call them “puzzles”. The game is designed so seamlessly that each obstacle feels just like that: an obstacle. A very real problem with a very real world solution.

The best example of this in my opinion was a point where I had to power a machine to operate a mechanical door. I knew I had to open the door to progress, but it was very obvious the thing wasn’t getting the juice it needed. So I let gamer Jonathan take over. Was there a way to jump over the door/gate and just move forward? No, no there wasn’t. Was there some magic switch to power everything? No, not that either. I went through all my usual tricks, and nothing worked. Then I had a thought. What if I didn’t think like a gamer? What if I just thought like, me?

I went back to square one, and analyzed the door. The control panel had a wire connected to it. I slowly looked up, and realized that unlike EVERY GAME EVER MADE EVER, the wire actually climbed up, went across a pole, and led to a specific little building a bit away. I figured why not, may as well check it out. Every game previously has taught me that if I was supposed to follow that wire, it would be bright pink and my companion character would have gotten her degree in Advanced Wire Studies. But, maybe the little building would have some extra ammo. So, I followed the wire, walked in, and found a health pack. Then I looked left.

No way.

What looked like a complicated breaker system was staring back at me, and it’s hard to describe the excitement I felt. HL didn’t want me to think like a gamer, it wanted me to think like me. Valve put so much work into this world that they wanted you to play this game like a human being, not a human being that has played 100 video games before. I immediately studied the breaker system. Three outlets, each clearly meant to house a battery. The wire I had followed attached to the outlet on the far right. There was one battery already in the far left outlet.

“What a fun puzzle this was” I thought to myself. I removed the battery from its original outlet, and put it in the one attached to the wire. I confidently walked back to what I expected to be a fully open door. The door was still down. A little surprised, I went back to the breaker system. This time I noticed that the outlets were all connected, and thought maybe I had to find two more batteries to fill the two remaining outlets. Sure enough, after searching through the building, I found a second battery under some debris. Feeling confident, I realized that I just had to find one more battery and I could power the door. I searched the building. Nothing. I searched around the perimeter of the building. Still nothing. I looked in other buildings. I looked near the door itself. No dice.

 

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I will say though, non-gamer Jonathan was very hesitant about the decorator’s tastes.

 

I went back to the breaker system one more time and really analyzed it. Then I (manually, believe me, manually), tried switching off the gamer in me and looked at it as just Jonathan. I looked at the design of the batteries. These definitely weren’t the type you could buy at CVS. They were bigger, square ones, like the kind you would find in a…

A lightbulb kicked on. I ran outside the building and looked around. Sure enough, I saw a pair of headlights sticking out from under some debris a bit away. I ran over, thinking to myself there was no way this was going to work, tore off the debris, and ripped the hood of the car off the body. What awaited me underneath, still attached to the engine, was a car battery. A removeable car battery. I grabbed it, ran back to the breaker, and sure enough. The lights came on, I heard an engine whirring, and I ran outside to be greeted by the mechanics of the door opening, allowing me to move forward.

This, to me, is why HL2 is for adults, because it wants you to think like an adult. It wants you to look at a situation and analyze what you would do, and try it. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t depend on your previous knowledge of other games to get you through. It doesn’t have massive signs or fireworks going off in the direction you’re supposed to go. Half Life 2 wants you to, like real life, be faced with a problem and not know immediately how to solve it. It wants you to use critical thinking, to fail and try again, and to feel a deep sense of satisfaction when you finally do overcome it. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t baby you.

Though it came out in the early 2000’s, Half Life 2 left an impression on me most modern games haven’t even come close to. It’s designed to feel like it isn’t designed. And whereas games like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider give you satisfaction when you beat a level, or when you accomplish some great task, HL just made me feel pleased with myself for opening a door. And let me tell you, when you get to be an adult… you’re thankful for every open door you come across.

-Jonathan Wine, Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive

 

The images in this post are not the property of or made in association with Wyvern. We do not claim ownership over any of these characters or photographs. 

THE TRAINER BLACKED OUT: A Writer’s Thoughts on Pokemon Go

THE TRAINER BLACKED OUT: A Writer’s Thoughts on Pokemon Go

This is a follow-up to a blog article I wrote February 10, 2016 called Gotta Catch ‘Em All: A Writer’s Thoughts on Pokemon Go. For the original post, click here.

On June 6, 2016, after several months (for some people, years) of anticipation, Pokemon Go was released on mobile devices with the promise for trainers to be given a world to explore and become a Pokemon trainer as many of us dreamed of being when we were growing up. For fans across the globe, the moment the game was announced, people began losing their minds. Even non-gamers who weren’t as interested in the Pokemon phenomenon were enamored by the time the Superbowl trailer hit. The world collectively geeked out over the wonder of transforming the world into a game map using augmented reality.

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To watch the Superbowl ad that stole our hearts, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F46tGehnfo

Niantic had already created a game of similar structure to this previously, called Ingress. While the game had received quite a bit of attention from the internet community, there was no way the fanbase could compete with the one brought in by their partnership with Nintendo. Because of this, as those of us playing the game the first few weeks experienced, there were several server lags and for a few days, all of the servers completely crashed due to the unexpected volume of usage. Once they figured that out, things slowly improved, although even to this day the game still has problems. The biggest starting promises for features of the game that would be available at launch were to 1. Allow players to catch pokemon and fill out their pokedex, 2. let players battle their friends, 3. include duels with Legendaries, and 4. give players the ability to trade with friends and family.

Out of these four key promises made by the game creators, and after 11 months on the android/iphone market, only ONE of these features is currently included in the game.

I’m sorry, what?

Yep. For those of you who never picked it up or who left the Go community because of the frustration this caused, three of the four biggest elements of the pokemon games (PVP battles, trading, and hunting down Legendary pocket monsters) have still not been added to the game, and because gamers can sniff out a glitch and betrayal of their favorite IPs from a mile away, the entire gaming community took notice. During the first month when the game experienced the most glitches, server problems, account errors, loss of saved information, and the like, the Ingress support team refused to release any statements addressing the community for almost a month. Even then, the first posts from the team included a single line apologizing for server errors (but not giving any further information) and announcing the release to additional countries, the first of which being Germany. In these early posts for the first month and a half of the game’s life, none of them addressed fixes to the game’s problems, and more often than not, people’s emails to the company about the problems they were facing went ignored. At its peak in mid-July of 2016, it is estimated that over 45,000,000 people were logged into the servers and playing the game. Now, a little less than a year later, after all the frustration the company has caused, the game’s daily user number has dropped to a measly 5,000,000. That means that the daily community usage dropped 89% between July of last year to now.

In order to keep some of the members of its fanbase from feeling so betrayed for these elements not being present, Niantic began creating events tied to the time of year that trainers were playing. The first one I noticed was the Halloween event where Ghost and Dark type pokemon were far more common and in less than a week, I had a Gengar AND Marowak with candy to spare. I would be lying if I said I didn’t participate in these events when I could, and it still urks me to this day that I couldn’t find a Christmas hat Pikachu during December.

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Jus lookit that cute widdol guy…

However, in order for any game to succeed, the company can’t just hold a few in-game events and think that will rectify the glaring problems with the core gameplay mechanics. Because it can’t. If there are major issues with the game’s functionality, story, or overall structure, even if additions are added to the game in order to try and patch up the ugly areas, in the end, the game will still not recover from the damage that has already been caused.

As much as I would love to spend this entire time critiquing Pokemon Go, featuring the world’s favorite electric mouse, Niantic is not the only company who is guilty of releasing a game before it’s ready to be seen by the world. While some games have recovered and still kept their audience despite being glitchy, such as Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas, others were not so lucky.  Now, several other games have such a notorious reputation for their maker’s mistakes that they will never be enjoyed as the games they could have been due to a release that came far too early or an incomplete release that required DLC in order to actually play.

Now what’s so bad about that, Nerissa? What is so bad about a game releasing additional content or patches later down the line?

Personally, I have a HUGE problem with any company that uses patches and DLC as a crutch. While downloadable content can be a great way to expand upon the story that player’s fell in love with during the main campaign, as we were able to experience during Rapture at Sea (Bioshock Infinite DLC) and Left Behind (The Last of Us DLC), too many companies have been using it as an ex machina, pulled out at the last minute to save the company from all blame and ill-will.

Here’s why: Do you remember when release dates and midnight release parties were the crux of our existence, giving us something to look forward to for months at a time? I remember when I was a teenager and the sixth Harry Potter book came out. I was so excited to read it and decided to spend the night before the release at Border’s. The place was completely packed – there were costume contests, trivia games, How-To-Brew-Butterbeer classes, live readings of sections of the previous books filling every corner of the bookstore, which had been transformed for the evening into Diagon Alley. For a nerdy kid like me, I was in heaven and hopping in line and getting my copy of The Half-Blood Prince at 12:27AM dressed as Hermione Granger was a sacred experience. I will always cherish that memory.

For die-hard fans of any series, getting the copy of a book, movie, or game in your hand and getting to rush home to enjoy it for hours on end after years of waiting…It’s indescribable. If there’s a release I am truly looking forward to, my friends are completely okay with the fact that I will more likely than not go missing for a few days as I hole myself up in my room to play the latest release for hours on end. When Last Guardian came out after nine years of waiting, I got the collector’s edition day of and was able to beat the game within three or four days. This one didn’t interfere with the rest of my life much, but I, being the huge Legend of Zelda fan I am, knew that I was going to need some extra time for Breath of the Wild. When it came out, I not only gave my standard hibernation warning to my friends, but I even gave it to the Wyvern team, knowing that I would need a few weeks to be the Princess’ appointed knight before going back to the grind. Jonathan was great about it and left me to play the game I had longed for so.

The die-hard fans are the ones who are going to be waiting anxiously to get all of the custom game merchandise and the game itself and chances are, they’re going to want to get it the day it comes out. Now that video game creators have come to rely more and more on releasing games sooner rather than later then adding patches as they are reported, rather than allowing time for beta testing to do its job, it’s slowly depriving the die-hards of the beauty of that first-time experience. If players really want an untainted, fully debugged experience nowadays, you typically have to wait until the Game of the Year edition of the game is released a few months later. And that’s a horrible thing to do to your fanbase.

Take one of the most recent culprits of this: No Man’s Sky.

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Oh boy. Here we go.

The main selling point of the game was that, in this science fiction world, a procedurally generated science-fiction galaxy was laid out before you to explore, discover new life, mine for materials, and more. Due to the popularity of the Mass Effect series, people expected this to be a game with rich characters and story to occupy this infinitely vast world.

And what players got…wasn’t that.

I have seen gameplay of No Man’s Sky and while it does look beautiful, the game has received an onslaught of criticism for the lack of…well, any point or meaning to travelling through this universe. Players are encouraged to planet-hop and if you get far out enough into the edges of the galaxy, you can even name undiscovered planets and make your mark on the worlds. Which is pretty cool. But other than that, there is very little plot, very little driving the action, and from the way my roommate described it, it is “a great Minecraft-for-adults to play while you’re waiting for something else to do.” On top of that, for many players, save data would be continually corrupted, sometimes the game would give you incorrect in-game prompts, making it hard to tell whether you had docked or were still in space, players would lose items or sometimes their entire inventory would wipe, and players frequently got stuck inside the terrain, making it impossible to move or be removed.

The company heard these complaints, addressed them, and while they made sure that the world as a whole functions more smoothly, from what I understand, no additional story elements or in-game guidance have been added in the 24 patches they have released while the game was already out.

There are too many other games to count that make it onto this “released a broken game in the hopes it would get better” list: Superman 64, Sonic ‘06, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Ultima IX – I could go on. Even Battlefield 4, which had earned critical acclaim for many of its elements, had such broken multiplayer that even with patches, it was never able to recover in its user numbers. But in the end, as much as we’d like to point fingers at one or two titles, a majority of the big-name companies rely on releasing further patches post-release date nowadays so we need to treat this as the larger issue that it really is. We, as gamers and on the whole, are a pretty smart group of people and companies can’t expect us to wait and hope for a game to get better with the next patch or purchasable DLC. And while my love for the Pokemon series and desire to be a trainer will go on, Niantic needs to realize that they only have a certain amount of time to win back the community’s trust before one by one, the trainers black out.

-Nerissa Hart, Writer and Director of Marketing, Wyvern Interactive LLC.

The images in this post are not the property of or made in association with Wyvern. We do not claim ownership over any of these characters or photographs. 

The Dollar Taketh Away

I have a confession to make. Some of you may already know this about me, others are probably going to be shocked beyond all reason. It’s something I don’t like to bring out about myself unless I’m in my closest circles, and even then it’s shameful and I have no real excuse for it. However, for you today, internet, I bare my darkest secret.

I am… a Sonic the Hedgehog fan.

… did you hear that? That’s the sound of hundreds of Facebook and Twitter followers unfollowing the Wyvern social media pages simultaneously. It’s the sound of Nerissa and the rest of the team refusing to work with me anymore, of my friends cancelling all the plans we’ve made for next weekend, my parents saying I’m dead to them, my wife leaving me, and if we had kids it’s the sound of them being taken away… all at the same time.

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Why Daddy… WHY?!

Alright, so I’m obviously exaggerating a little bit, but honestly sometimes that’s how it feels being a fan of the Blue Blur in this day and age. And not without reason. He hasn’t exactly had a… stellar catalogue the past decade or so. In fact, some of his ventures have been flat out embarrassing. At this point, saying that Sonic is your favorite game character is like saying you want Nickelback played at your funeral, or that 2016 was by-far the best year ever. It’s almost a joke in-and-of itself because of how laughably awful most of SEGA and Sonic Team’s decisions have been.

But my relationship with Sonic is much deeper than games, and because of that, more recently than most Sonic fans I had my heart broken… hard. This isn’t going to be one of our “educational” or “opinion” blog posts. This is going to be more of a story, with a very not-so-happy ending.  So basically it’s one of the original stories Disney bases their movies on. It’s the Little Mermaid without the happily ever after, or the singing, or the… joy. This is the true version, where Ariel turns into seafoam (oh yeah, look it up).

The very first video game I ever played was Sonic the Hedgehog for SEGA Genesis. To this day, the ringtone on my Mom’s phone for when I call her is the Green Hill Zone theme. I did not know the story, I couldn’t get past the third level without help, but I LOVED that game. Soon after, my parents got me my very first video game system: the SEGA Game Gear.

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It’s like a DS, kids, only you need overalls to fit it in your pocket.

Before long, I had a BILLION Sonic games for this sucker. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic Spinball, Tails Adventure, Sonic Chaos, Sonic Blast, on and on and on. I ate the little guy up everywhere I could. When my Mom’s work got a computer I could hang out on after school, you best believe it had everything from Sonic R to Sonic and Knuckles on it. Same when I snagged a Gamecube. I was hooked. And then I discovered something so beautiful and so wonderful, that it truly changed my life forever.

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*wipes away nostalgic tear*

It’s February, 2000. I just had my 9th birthday, spent almost all my money from relatives on… who knows what, and had a few dollars left. So I go into Books-A-Million with my Mom, and my eye is eventually drawn to a shelf by a familiar sight. A very, very familiar sight. A blue hedgehog, wearing red shoes. With the probably $3 of birthday money I had left, I bought my first copy of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic series by Archie. I got home, started reading… and had absolutely NO clue what was going on. Who are all these new characters? Why are there no rings and loops? WHY IS KNUCKLES GREEN?!?!

And yet… I was mesmerized. Because suddenly the characters that I had known as merely pixels on a screen had voices, personalities… purpose. For the next few years I bought all the back-issues I could, and to this day I’m only missing MAYBE a handful of issues here and there. Before long I owned well over 300+ issues/specials/mini-series, all of Knuckles short-lived but fantastic solo series, and I was of course still buying the new issues that came out once a month.

Let me give you a quick synopsis for the Sonic comics. First and foremost, they’re the longest running comic series of all time based on a video game character. The first one came out in 1992. They haven’t missed an issue. That in and of itself is impressive.

But the story, oh the story. The comics themselves never really followed the games, at least not directly. Their main inspiration was actually the Saturday Morning cartoon show. In a nutshell, it starts with a mad scientist (whose name is ROBOTNIK, not EGGMAN *shudders*) who creates a device that can replace lost limbs for soldiers with completely new biomechanical prosthetics. See, the humans have been at war with the other dominant species on this planet, what are called the Mobians, the hyper evolved versions of earth’s animals. They’re the cute little fuzzballs like Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, etc., or more accurately, their parents/grandparents. Now eventually,  humans and Mobians did learn to coexist, but the story starts with the humans trying to eradicate the Mobians so they alone can be the dominant species on the planet. Oh yeah, they start this “kid’s” story out with attempted genocide.

Anyway, Robotnik realizes that his device can actually “roboticize” people who HAVEN’T lost limbs, turning in-tact blood and bone into pure circuitry and metal. So he starts committing the war crime of enslaving and experimenting on his own people in secret, to the point where he’s eventually banished from human society. Well, who should pick him up but the Mobians, who in the games have all but a few been turned into robots… you see where this is going.

Long story short, the Mobians win the war, but Robotnik betrays them and enslaves the Mobian race completely, leaving only a handful of young kids all under the age of ten completely parentless. This handful swears to free their people, donning the title “the Freedom Fighters”, and one of them, a lightning fast hedgehog, begins to lead the charge.

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Our protagonist’s mother, being forcibly assaulted, bodily harmed, and brain-washed. Rated E for Everyone.

Seem a little dark? That’s because it is. The comic world, though yes, ridiculous and extremely “comic-bookey” held so much more meat and narrative complexity than the games. Characters died, parents had to sacrifice their lives for their children. Whole story arcs dealt with racism and classism, or challenging established traditions for the sake of progress. There were twenty year relationships between characters that went from flirting, to dating, to engaged, to married, to talking about kids of their own. Many characters suffered PTSD from years of fighting. The Sonic comics were the most well-written, enjoyable fictional stories I have ever had the pleasure of losing myself in.

Yes, I said “were.” I’ll get to that soon.

But see, this is why I never understood the Sonic hatred. Over the years as I threw myself into the comic world, I lost interest in the games. They weren’t even the same universe, there was no continuity between them, and as I got older I just realized there were some things that weren’t ever going to happen. Among them was a Zoids revival, the fact that Hermione wasn’t going to end up with Harry, and the Sonic games regaining their pride.

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Never happened. NEVER. HAPPENED.

I lived in a bubble. I lived in a bubble where Sonic wasn’t a joke of how something cool went down such a dark road. In my world, Sonic was a warrior, who was engaged to the girl (WHO IS NOT A HUMAN) he had been with for almost two decades, who had watched his family and friends fight for survival since he was a child. My Sonic was mature, and had never even heard the word “were-hog” before.

But everything changed September 2013.

In the comics, something called the “Genesis Wave” (look at those puns, good job Archie) occurred. Sonic and friends went through some sort of time-space event, and they ended up in a totally new world. New characters, new memories, a lot of “Guys what happened?!” moments. You know, typical, comic book fare.

I was in my Junior year of undergrad at the time, so I didn’t pick up the issues at monthly intervals, but more in chunks. So when I got to this point my first thought was “Oh sweet! I can’t wait to see how they resolve this.” And then I went on with my Junior and most of Senior year.

A few months later, I picked up a HUGE chunk of issues, getting myself caught up, and expecting for everything to fix itself, at least to a point, as it always had the past two decades. Sure some characters would die, maybe parts of this reality would bleed into the actual one but, whatever. The Sonic comics are known to shake things up now and again, surely this was no different.

But oh, dear readers. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. Because that new reality was the ONLY reality they seemed to know. Characters who had been engaged now were “just friends”. Some character’s parents were completely different, even having different names. Other characters, dozens of them, were completely missing. Whole races and cultures had totally vanished. And as opposed to fighting oppression or dealing with domestic terrorism or all these huge, socially relevant issues I’d been used to… they were collecting rings.

RINGS, PEOPLE. RINGS.

I went to the only thing that everyone knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is the most reliable and unyieldingly truthful source of information: the internet. And what I found, I can safely say caused the most pain I have ever felt from a piece of fiction.

The Sonic the Hedgehog comics had been a part of a lawsuit. And Sonic, and thus the fans, had lost.

In a nutshell, one of the writers who had been with the comic in the first 15 years or so had left awhile back. Though details are fuzzy, supposedly he had recently come back onto the scene to lay claim to a lot of the original characters he created, who at this point were not only comic mainstays but absolutely INTEGRAL to the ongoing narrative. If any character he helped write appeared, he wanted a royalty. He also wanted total control over the fate/narrative of all characters he was originally involved with. Other sources say Archie and SEGA had a tantrum and just all of a sudden didn’t want to use any of his stuff. Whatever the case, a huge court battle ensued. And the results, I found, were not good. At all.

Every character he had created was no longer allowed to be used. In fact, it was decided it would be best if they were just flat out wiped from existence. SEGA also got involved with the ruling, and decided the comics that had for so long DOMINATED them in terms of quality needed to be taken down a peg. Well, a lot of pegs. Because part of the new “ruling” was also that the comics would focus on the storylines of the games. Oh and also main characters could never have romantic relationships anymore, Sonic himself could never show extreme emotion, and my personal favorite, “Sonic can’t lose.” He can face hardship, or go through tough times… but he can’t lose.

Saying I was upset by finding all this out is like saying having a passenger jet land on you might create a “boo-boo”. I was devastated. The “Genesis Wave” wasn’t a story arc. It was a reset button. It was a total erasure of 20 years of story. Two decades of characters, of triumphs, of hardships… gone. Evaporated. It was 15 years of my life as a die-hard fan taken away from me.

The comics are still going on, but not for me. I can’t even look at them, it’s actually too painful. Because those comics weren’t just my favorite series, they weren’t just what saved a character that was otherwise almost hopelessly lost for me. They’re what inspired me to start writing. If people ask me why I wanted to tell stories, what REALLY got me into the idea of creating worlds and characters, I need only to point toward the Freedom Fighters, on the planet Mobius, and their 20+ year struggle to hell and back to reclaim their home and families back from a mad scientist. Their journeys, the love they had for each other, what made them… well, them.

But because of money and greed, that’s all gone. It’s wiped away. It’s not something I’ll be able to share with my kids like I always wanted to. It’s not something I can get people into by telling them to go to the store and pick up the current issue. It’s gone. Yes, some of the characters still exist, but even they aren’t the same. They don’t even remember all the adventures they had. Everything is different. Everything is… lesser, now. And it’s not coming back.

So why did I share all this with you? Why did I use one of our Wyvern Wednesday’s to talk about a fictional world’s fate, when we as a company have no real connection to it? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it’s because I just wanted to vent. Maybe it’s because now that I’m writing more for Wyvern, this has been fresh on my mind recently. Or, maybe it’s because, in the end, I realize that the lesson is it’s out of my control. I realized the day my stories were gone they were never mine to begin with. They were a copyright, they were a property. It didn’t matter how loyal I was, how much that world inspired me. It was never mine. It was Archie’s, and SEGA’s, and a disgruntled former employee’s.

But you know what? I refuse to believe that. That world is mine. Those characters I’ve grown up with have always been mine. Properties of that world and universe may have a trademark on them, but the joy, the adventure, and the emotions those two decades of stories brought me… those will always be with me. And I think that’s the true lesson. The dollar gives, and the dollar takes… but stories themselves, are timeless. So I may not have the concrete, official ending to that world that I wanted, but you can bet your life I know how it ended in my head. I know who ended up with who. I know families were reunited… I know the Freedom Fighters won.

Why? Because Sonic made a writer out of me. And no court is taking that away.

Last Minute Plot Twist/Epilogue:

I’m so happy I get to write this part, guys.

In the post-blog writing depression that came after I finished this piece, I was perusing the internet to see if ANYTHING had been done to give fans of the old timeline closure. A Reddit forum put me onto the blog of the current Sonic writer, Ian Flynn, who has an ongoing (slow-moving, but ongoing) mission to chronicle for fans how he was going to end the run before Archie made him reset the timeline. There won’t be pictures, there probably won’t even be dialogue, but this guy in his free time is laying out the stories fans will never get to see officially. One day, I will get my closure.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to write the Vatican to see about making this man a saint.

Jonathan Wine, Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive.

 

The images in this post are not the property of or made in association with Wyvern. We do not claim ownership over any of these characters or photographs. 

Reboot, Rinse, Repeat

Once upon a time, an italian plumber lived in a faraway land known as the Mushroom Kingdom with his beloved fiancee, the Princess. Everything was at peace in the Kingdom, until…One grim day, the villainous King Koopa invaded and abducted the Princess, leaving our heroic plumber to save her, no matter how many castles he had to storm.

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Italian Plumber…Princess…King Koopa…and a very distinctive mustache? Seems familiar…

Of course it sounds familiar. Pretty much everyone in the world knows the face of the Mario video game franchise. If you ask any gamer who Mario is, they’ll be able to tell you in no time that he is a plumber in love with Princess Peach with either an overrated or underappreciated (depends on your view) brother, Luigi, whose favorite lady keeps getting abducted by Bowser. Right when he always thinks he’s found her, Toad saunters in, tells Mario that his Princess is in another castle, and you have to start back at square one. For those of us born in the 80’s or 90’s, the early Super Mario main franchise games were a huge part of our childhood. They set the bar when it came to side-scrolling platformers.

Now let me ask you a question: Based on the summary above, what game was I talking about? I only said I was talking about Mario. But which SPECIFIC game did I mean?

Well, if we’re just talking Super Mario games involving Mario, Peach, and Bowser or the Bowser clan, then that synopsis applies to…

  • Super Mario Bros
  • Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels
  • Super Mario Bros 2
  • Super Mario Bros 3
  • Super Mario World
  • Super Mario 64
  • Super Mario Sunshine
  • New Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Galaxy
  • New Super Mario Bros Wii.
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2
  • Super Mario 3D Land
  • New Super Mario Bros 2
  • New Super Mario Bros. U
  • Super Mario 3D World
  • (And coming out in 2017) Super Mario Odyssey

All of these titles involve Mario and a cast of other characters saving a Princess from a member of the Bowser family. All, whether 2D or 3D, play out in the style of a platformer. All of the titles include the words “Super” and “Mario”, “Bros” is used in eight of the titles, “New” is used in four, two are set in space, and three, rather than having separate titles, are named after the consoles they were created for (N64/Wii/WiiU). Most have 8-10 levels/worlds to explore, although some give or take from this number for the sake of gameplay time extensions. And this isn’t even including the offshoot games including these characters such as Mario Kart, Super Mario Strikers, Super Mario Baseball, Smash Brothers, Mario Tennis, Paper Mario, Mario Party, Super Mario Maker…I could go on.

Nintendo has been doing this for decades, not just with their beloved red-capped handyman, but in series such as Animal Crossing, Kirby, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Star Fox, Pikmin, and more. People have been throwing their money at Nintendo for years to get their hands on these titles. The big-name companies have made hundreds of millions from the demand of their merch, tattoos, clothes, accessories, and more, all showcasing the characters and symbols from these games. And Nintendo isn’t even the only big-name company doing this. Think about Call of Duty, Kingdom Hearts, Little Big Planet, Tekken, Assassin’s Creed, Mortal Kombat, and Halo – all huge franchises in no way associated with Nintendo that are also guilty of this. I’m sure most of you have heard these titles before. So show of hands from the class, who can tell me one thing that all of these franchises have in common? Anyone? Aaaaaaanyone?

Answer: Within each series, their titles are all basically the same game.

I may have just enraged the entire gaming community, but it’s true. In all of these series, most, if not all the elements from their franchises are copied and pasted to recreate extremely similar games (sometimes even the same game) over…and over…and over again. In reality, it’s not like you’re getting anything all that new from the experience…right? Take the Super Mario Series. With the exception of a few slight plot changes, additions of some new characters, monsters, and abilities, the villain occasionally switching to Wario or Donkey Kong in some of the offshoot Mario titles, and maybe the use of Luigi alongside Mario, the base story always stays the same: Bowser/Bowser Jr. abducts Princess. Mario storms levels. Mario saves princess. And usually, cake is somehow involved. The end.  

Don’t believe me? Let me prove my point.

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What about Pokemon? What is EVERY SINGLE GAME in that series about?

You capture pokemon, try to catch ‘em all, earn gym badges, use your street smarts at age 10 to take down an entire gang (Team Rocket/Aqua/Magma/Galactic/Plasma/Flare/Skull), defeat the elite four, and become the best (like no one ever was).

Tekken?

You beat the crap out of your opponents. (A few tried incorporating story modes, but let’s be honest – no one plays Tekken for the story mode.)

Call of Duty?

You shoot things during wars. Sometimes zombies are involved.

Note that in each of these questions I’m posing, the question was never about a specific game. I didn’t ask about the plot of Pokemon Sun or campaign mode in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. I asked about the name of the series and I’ll bet that, with every one of those titles I mentioned, you immediately pictured the main traits of each series. Sure, each game in these franchises have their own variations – the look of Link’s Awakening vs Breath of the Wild or classic Metroid vs Metroid Prime is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Still, there are so many similarities, character wise and plot wise, that most of the game feel like a complete copy and paste of another one that has already been made. Games like this are KILLING creativity and throwing it to the wayside, instead preferring to give Sackboy a new fabric and calling it a day.

With so little original work being sent down the pipeline, the general public often finds itself screaming for new ideas, but instead, we are more often than not given remakes, reboots, and crappy sequels to movies and games that we once loved. Yet for the sake of sticking to the old and reliable, it is so much harder for original work to be produced – why is that?

Well, experiencing a new game takes extra effort both on the part of the audience and the development team. For the audience, playing new games requires extra effort because they’re NOT characters you know, nor is it a story you are familiar with. New experiences have to present something engaging enough to actually capture the audience’s attention long enough for them to keep playing. Otherwise, they may as well go play the classic Kirby games again. For the developers, creating new games can be especially challenging because if any of the story elements or gameplay mechanics match one of these bigger titles, they’ll constantly be compared to what the general public considers “the original”. This forces indie developers into steering away from the classical styles in fear of being swallowed and overshadowed by the big guys. Games that truly give something new to the world are absolutely beautiful, but in the end, there’s only so much time we have with these stories before their companies have to move on to something else. Not every series can get away with rehashing the same plot like Super Mario can, because the players EXPECT and, in fact, DEMAND a different experience every time from everywhere else.

On top of that, when it comes to making original games, there is a lot of competition that already exists out there. Games like Limbo, Superhot, Catherine, Journey, Beyond Good and Evil, Okami, No More Heroes, and Alan Wake have earned gaming “cult classic” status because in our world, NOTHING else exists quite like them, making them truly spectacular experiences to play and watch. These games encompass originality, but if you were ever to try to reproduce them aside from maybe adding one or two sequels, you would just diminish the wonderful experience the original gave you. With more and more games like these being created, the pool of entirely original ideas is slowly running dry, making it much harder to produce another truly individual story. Hence, more often than not, the big guys win the day.

So here’s my follow-up, and I am going to pull at the heartstrings a bit with my example. If you joke about this game’s eventual realization, you hold the power to make a room of adult gamers weep. Let’s say that one of the most highly anticipated games of all time was finally set for release. In this hypothetical, Valve has announced the official release date of Half-Life 3.

HL3

The world goes insane. Gamers pull out their Black Mesa backpacks and Gordon Freeman jackets. Men and women pull out their cosplay and crossplay to wear to conventions as marks of pride. Friends gather in packs to replay the first and second games in the series, mentally and spiritually preparing themselves for the journey they have been waiting for Valve to take them on all of these years.

The game finally comes out…

The graphics are beautiful. The game boots up and you can’t help but marvel at the new soundtrack and look of the world. When the plot kicks in, you see Gordon Freeman going to work at a research center. As he walks inside, he finds that the entire facility has been taken over by horrible, other-worldly creatures, and it is up to you to…

Wait a second…

As you play further and further into the game, you realize that the dialogue is slightly different, but you fight alongside the same companions and the game essentially has the same plot. There are a few new weapons to toy with, like a marshmallow launcher, dubstep gun, and a large potted plant that shoots air in different directions, but other than that, it’s all identical. With the release of the new Half-Life game, Valve also announces a full PC release title called “Aperture Corporate League Lacrosse”, set to sell for 50 bucks on steam.

Imagine the outrage that would spread like wildfire. After waiting all that time, what would happen if the new Half-Life was exactly like the original, save a few changes, and if they tried releasing a knock-off sports game for the same retail price as the new game? The Half-Life series could NEVER get away with trying to pull something like that! The doors of Valve would be rammed down faster than you could promise them that if they cooperate, there will be cake.

PESP.PNG

All they’d have to do is assume the party escort submission position.

So if Half-Life, one of the most infamous series’ of all time, created by one of the top notch studios in the industry, can’t get away with the plot and character copy/paste, then WHY can Kingdom Hearts create a million games where you go to Olympus Colosseum over and over again? For people begging for something new, we can be pretty hypocritical when it comes to this. So for us who long for originality, why do we still pay for the same thing we’ve seen before?

Because we need something familiar to latch onto. Half-Life was made with the intent of telling a truly original story, so if they suddenly took away the sense of fear and wonder, what would the audience be left with? Nothing that resembles the feeling you get when you first play it, so the replay value of the same mechanics and story falls short. The success of the Half-Life series lies in its singularity by nature. It’s about the story. It’s about the experience. That’s why we love them, and that’s why adding a marshmallow gun would do the series no justice.

With series like The Legend of Zelda, Little Big Planet, Pokemon, and friends, on the other hand, the reason people go back to these games is so that they can revisit the characters they came to know and love all those years ago. It’s not about getting a brand new experience out of it. It’s just about enjoying the experience you have had before. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. It’s pure, digitized nostalgia. When you’ve had a bad day or when things in your life aren’t going your way, everyone needs a home that they can land in to take solace with a character they can see as an ally or a friend. For some, that comfort comes from catching their favorite pokemon across the game generations and finally evolving them to their final forms. For others, getting to play as another assassin that happens to be inserted into different time periods makes their hearts soar. I always know that I can go back to the land of Hyrule and feel accomplished as the bearer of the triforce of courage, and that, in the world of gaming, is my home.

Think of it this way: Everyone has that one favorite movie they always go back to. Sure, there are other movies in theatres they could go see, but if they aren’t feeling as adventurous, they could still rely on their old and faithful flicks. For me, that movie is Moulin Rouge. If I can’t decide what I want to watch, if life is getting me down, or if I need to watch a movie to belt out my lungs to with friends, Moulin Rouge is a movie I can always depend on. I know every bit of the plot, songs, the innuendos and the mistakes in the film like the back of my hand. Even though I’m not getting something out of watching Moulin Rouge that I haven’t gotten before, it still makes me feel comforted in some way every time I watch it, simply because I love it.

The same goes for franchise games like these. Walking into any new Mario Bros. game, I know that Bowser is going to abduct Princess Peach (or some other important tiara-clad political figure). I know that Mario will have to stomp over a million goombas in order to get to her, and I know that there will be 8-10 levels to play before I finally reach King Koopa himself. Still, all that searching and all that repetition doesn’t make it any less satisfying to finally find Princess Peach in another castle.

M&P.PNG

Yet, as much as I will always love my Legend of Zelda games, there is no feeling more satisfying than browsing games on Steam, finding a high meta-score rated game that I’ve never heard of, playing it, and letting the dive into something entirely new overtake me. We as designers are constantly striving to create and mold altogether singular experiences. The thought of someone finding one of our games blind and letting it transport them away from anything they’d expect excites me beyond belief. Nothing makes me happier than experiencing that feeling of playing a brand new game and taking the dive into somewhere entirely new, and I only hope that’s something I can give back to the rest of the world like those games have done for me. I cannot wait for the day when our stories – Wyvern’s and my own – can reach out, put the power in the player’s hands, and take them onto their next big adventure. I can’t wait to say, “Let me show you something new.”

-Nerissa Hart, Writer and Marketing Admin Assistant for Wyvern Interactive

 

NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.

Of Flowers and Flamethrowers

Headshot. Killing spree. Execution. If you were to hear these words on the local news, it would make your stomach turn at how awful and disgusting of a place the world can be. But throw those same three words into the context of a video game, and the tone changes entirely. Now you hear epic music, your guys and gals are cheering you on, and there’s a lot of holding down the Right Trigger button or pressing X to get that last glorious decapitation that will end a boss fight. If the video game police were a thing, let’s be real, we’d all be in jail for life, because the body count we’ve wracked up over the years would be enough to populate whole planets.

To say that video games aren’t inherently violent is a lie. There’s no getting around it, it’s a bald-faced, one hundred percent, Pinocchio-nose-growing lie. It’s a fantasy that 10 and under kids tell their mom so they can get that one game their older sibling plays. It’s as untrue as when Christopher Lambert told people in the old Mortal Kombat movie that “Mortal Kombat is not about death, it’s about life.”

mortal-kombat-x-liu-kang-fatality-move.jpg

LOL, okay Raiden.

Now, contrary to how I’m starting this post, I’m not turning this into a “Video Games Cause Violence!” tirade. That statement has been proven wrong time and time again, and only has ANY credence to it when someone already has mental issues and needs serious help. I have shot, slashed, poisoned, crushed, and fatality-ed with the best of them, and I am a perfectly civil, well-balanced human being (in proofreading this for me, my wife got to this part and muttered “sometimes”. Thanks babe).

That statement, however, leads into the topic of my post. Over the years I have played, and still play, SO many violent games. I have killed SO many more bad guys than I could ever hope to count. I, like most gamers, am so desensitized to combat in games that my years of playing have conditioned me to the fact that if I am in a virtual world, and someone/something is moving toward me, I automatically assume it is my solemn duty to go total Rambo on it.

In the past year however, I discovered something about games that I had long, long forgotten. I had just finished Ninja Gaiden 3 (Razor’s Edge, not the terrible vanilla release fans don’t speak of), and was looking through my “to-do list library” for my next game. In case you don’t know the Ninja Gaiden series, let me sum it up for you: you’re a ninja, and you kill stuff a lot.

gaiden-ninja-desktop-wallpaper-ninjagaiden-game-gallery-31679

The only game I’ve ever played where you can still finish someone off after you decapitate them.

It’s a superb, adrenaline-fueled, controller-smashing carnage fest that never let’s up until the credits roll. The bonkers ultraviolence is so in your face that even by the time I, a seasoned gaming grim reaper, was done… even I knew I needed a break.

As I was looking for something to get the sound of sword clashes and recently dismembered ninjas screaming for vengeance out of my head (oh yes, they come after you Monty Python’s Black Knight style), my eyes landed on something I had bought as a present for my wife: Super Mario Galaxy. Now, to give you some context, I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid and young teen. My parents were understandably leery of violence in games when I was young because the art and its ramifications were still fairly new, so I got used to playing games for a long time that were more “kid-friendly”. Sonic, Mario, Link, Samus, etc., are all old buddies of mine, but as I got older and was allowed to play more, they slowly got pushed further and further back, because now I could try all those shiny M rated titles that I’d heard legends of over the years. Fast-forward a bit and my Nintendo console is collecting dust except when me and my best friends need to settle an argument.

ssbb_group_battle_hd

And we all know there’s only one true way to settle an argument.

But some ancient, little voice of childhood nostalgia won me over that day. I found some new AA batteries to put in my Wii Mote, booted up the console, went through all the expected software updates, and started playing Galaxy.

You guys, it was so much fun.

It was SO much fun. And not just because Galaxy is a fantastic game (it is), or because it was the polar opposite of Ninja Gaiden (it really is), but because it reminded me of something that I had not felt in a video game in a long… long time: pure, unfiltered, unending wonder.

You remember that first time you crested the hill and saw Rapture in Bioshock? Or the very first time you synchronized a viewpoint then performed a Leap of Faith in Assassin’s Creed? Your first parkour run in Mirror’s Edge? That feeling of absolute innocence with the giraffes in the Last of Us? That’s what I was feeling playing Mario, only the whole time. Pure wonder and excitement. What would the next level entail? Would I be soaring through the stars, or swimming through the oceans, or riding an oversized toy train? Here I was, playing a game designed for kids, and physically smiling more than any other game has made me for a long, long time.

Now, this might seem like the end of this blog post, but it’s not. Because what I really want to talk about is a double-edged sword. We just got done with edge one: no matter how much you love being a badass and mowing down swarms of enemies, that does not mean you should forego the games that you used to play as a kid. To be honest, they are probably better designed, and more fun, than 90% of the stuff in your current play log.

The other edge, however, is a message to myself, as a designer, and to all the other game designers who read this: as tempting as it is, combat and violence do not have to be factors in all the games we make. In fact… it can make a game so much more meaningful when they’re excluded entirely. And if there is one glowing example of that statement, it’s this:
Flower

Within the past decade, I have beaten over 100 games. That’s not including mobile, multiplayer, or web-based games. Some of those games have individually taken over 75 hours to beat, and many have included multi-hour-long DLC that expands upon the story and game experience further. And yet the game pictured above, Flower, by Thatgamecompany, has touched me more than any of those 100+ could ever hope to. If Super Mario Galaxy rekindled that spark of wonder in me… Flower did the equivalent of lighting a bonfire for it.

The game takes, MAYBE, 2+ hours to complete. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Well, this is Jonathan, so the story must be incredible.” Here’s the story summary: there really isn’t one.

I know. I KNOW. If you’ve read any of my previous stuff you’re probably worried I’ve been kidnapped and am writing that last statement as a call for help. But I’m completely serious: the most memorable game I’ve played… pretty much ever, didn’t have a single drop of actual narrative to it. And yet, the lessons you’re supposed to take from the game are so crystal clear it’s unbelievable: nature is beautiful, and wonder doesn’t need context.

Okay Jonathan, you’re saying, maybe there’s no concrete narrative, but maybe there’s an implied narrative like what Nerissa so eloquently discussed in our last post? Perhaps the character you play as is rife with symbolism and a sense of humanism that we can all relate to at an emotional level.

Nope, you play as the wind. Not the Spirit of the Wind, not the mystical demi-god of wind AuGUSTus (see what I did there?). You play, as the plain old, go-outside-and-your-hat-gets-blown-off wind.

What’s the point of the game? You go through various natural settings, picking up flower petals in your breeze. Each flower petal enhances the music a little bit, and by the end of the level a soothing orchestral score is accompanying you as hundreds of tiny little flower petals trail behind you, twisting and turning over fields and forests.

There’s no fighting, there’s no bosses. There’s you, nature, and an orchestra. It’s so intimate, and so peaceful, that you’ll all but forget you’re playing a video game… because you just shouldn’t get this much tranquility from a video game… should you?

And that is the beauty of Flower. Because it goes against every video game normative out there. It replaces high definition buildings with grass blowing in a field. It replaces the demon-slaying awesomeness of the heavy metal guitars in Doom with a piano and some subtle instruments. And it doesn’t need a rich narrative to convey its lesson that no matter how complex your combo system is, sometimes the greatest amounts of joy can be given by the simplest things.

Flower is only available on the PS3 or PS4. If you haven’t played it, I can’t suggest enough that you do. If you don’t have those consoles, one of your friends will. Spot them $10 and ask them to download it for you. You will not regret it.

As designers, and as players, it’s easy to fall into the trap of repetition. That’s actually the topic that Nerissa will be covering in her next post. It’s so easy for us to get used to that familiar sense of: play tutorial, go forth, shoot everything. We do it without thinking. And you know what, those kind of games are totally fine. I’m just as excited for the next Shadow of Mordor or Far Cry game as you are. I’m a gamer, bullets and mayhem are my bread-and-butter.

But… don’t let yourself believe that is the only thing that games have to offer. It’s not. You’ve heard me say before that games can put you into a world, and I almost always mean that in the context of a story, but if a game like Flower can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes… just the world is enough. We say that games let us experience things we could never experience in real life, like slaying a dragon or saving the world. But they can also let you see wonders. They can let you explore new places. They can let you fly.

… and I don’t care who you are. You could be a seasoned Call of Duty pro or a League champion, we’ve all wanted to fly. And games can give us that. Whether we’re in a fighter jet… or simply a flower petal, caught in a gust of wind.

Jonathan Wine, Founder and Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive, LLC.

NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.

Open Interpretation

If you have read our previous blog posts, you know by now that Jonathan and I talk a LOT about the importance of storytelling and detailed worlds in games. Insert Bioware fangirl writing here. (Ooh, decision-making! So fancy!)

Between the two of us, we have talked about elaborate story and decision based games so much that, if you didn’t know us better, you may have thought we were being paid to advertise for them. I can promise you, that is not the case – we’re just suckers for good character development. However, these aren’t the only kinds of stories that hold a monumental amount of emotional resonance and impressive gameplay. Personally, as much as I adore games with intricate worlds, I actually find loosely plotted games, in many cases, far more poignant, heartbreaking, and beautiful.

Traditional story-based games are focused on making sure that players understand all the plot details needed at the moment the designers so choose. Because of this, they are also notorious for holding the player’s hand a little too much with tutorials and puzzles. Loosely told or abstract storytelling in games, on the other hand, is known for refusing to hold the player’s hand, sometimes to an even punishing degree. These games focus far more on the gameplay itself and the art style of the game. By minimizing the amount of cut-scenes and direct information the player is given, they allow players to come up with their own theories of what the game is actually about.

Games like Dark Souls, Limbo, Bioshock, Journey, and the entire Trico trilogy give you very little information directly, instead forcing you to gather whatever information you can from the environment and piece it together in some form of coherent fashion. There are dozens of message boards dedicated specifically to dissecting video games just like these. Some YouTubers, such as Michael Samuels, or VaatiVidya to his fans, have even made a career for themselves by becoming – I kid you not – video game scholars whose sole goal is to dissect every single detail in open interpretation games in order to pull out the much more vivid, albeit theorized story hidden within. This, in a way, can also apply to the Legend of Zelda timeline, which is still up for debate to this day, especially with the release of the (wildly innacurate timeline in the) Hyrule Hystoria. (A personal opinion, but I will defend it to my dying breath…)

The two greatest examples of “open to interpretation” games that I have close and personal relationships with are Limbo and Shadow of the Colossus. Both have vastly different play styles, but the biggest common denominator that gives their stories power is the fact that, with the exception of a few cut scenes interspersed throughout, the games force you to hunt down clues to put together the puzzle that makes up their plot.

And as always, SPOILER WARNING: I will be spoiling the crap out of Limbo and Shadow of the Colossus. If you didn’t want spoilers on these two titles, please stop reading now. Then again, Limbo has been out for 7 years now and Shadow of the Colossus for 12, so I doubt that the moments I mention will be news to most of you.

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Especially stuff about the spider. Everyone had nightmares about the spider.

Let’s start with Limbo. At face value, Limbo is an all black-and-white 2D puzzle platformer that follows a young boy who awakens in the middle of a vast forest with no way to move but forward. The title screen shows a tattered treehouse and throughout the game, you encounter a large spider, small white parasites that stick to your head and temporarily control the direction of your movement, and other children who are lost in the middle of this odd place too. The world of Limbo is a forest leading into a lost-boys like fort leading into a field of gears and tablesaws ten times bigger than you powering an unknown machine. We also get the occasional glimpse of corpses of children who have previously succumbed to this world’s traps and monsters. Some have even killed themselves and their bodies can be seen hanging from trees. There’s also a recurring scene of a little girl in a slightly brighter lit meadow, sometimes ending with her disappearance, you being forced away from her, or the screen just fading to black.

All of this on its own makes for a very confusing first-time playthrough, and the creators of the game aren’t exactly helping the situation. Like many game creators, the things they wanted left a secret stayed that way and, with the exception of stating that the little girl the boy reaches in the end is his sister, that’s all they have confirmed. Literally everything else in the game is left up to the player’s own speculation. The only other clue that people have been given directly by the developers is in the marketing materials for the game.

“Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo…”

Now, if you are at all familiar with mythology, Dante’s Inferno, or some sects of modern Christianity, you can probably take a guess as to where the action takes place. If not, let me break a few things down for you that, at this point, are pretty commonly accepted about the game.

Limbo (the place), according to many religions texts, is the circle of hell that souls are led to after death who have neither earned themselves damnation nor gained absolution. Often times, these poor unfortunate souls end up falling into one of two categories: They were people who couldn’t quite be admitted to heaven but were essentially put in Limbo as a holding area until their souls could receive redemption. The other option is that the souls are of those too young to  understand religion and make their own decisions, such as infants and children.

Children. Huh. And the only other people we see in Limbo (the game) are also children. Interesting…

Because of this pretty clear piece of evidence, it is commonly assumed and accepted that the little boy, girl, and all the other children in the game Limbo are dead and are in the circle of hell known as “Limbo of the Infants”. And since all of the characters in the game are dead, many of the theories about the game have to do with trying to piece together how the siblings died in the first place.
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Since the treehouse appears both on the main menu screen and during the very last moment of the game when the brother and sister reunite, many believe that the two of them fell from the treehouse they used to play in. Others believe that, due to the machinations that take over the second half of the game and the amount of times that the brother crashes through glass, the two of them died in a car crash. However, while either of these may in fact be the reason the siblings are there, I don’t believe that how they died is what the game is actually about. When I first played the game, I didn’t realize that my theory was not only commonly accepted by others, but in comparison, is considered one of the darkest theories about Limbo that exists.

In my mind, this story directly parallelled with the Sisyphean tasks present in Greek mythology. Essentially, there was a man named Sisyphus who, according to myths, was trapped in hell and tasked with pushing an extremely large boulder up a steep hill. For eternity. No matter how many times he tried to complete the task, right as he reached the top, his strength would always fade and every time, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom. His mind was broken, his muscles were in agony and weary, but his will just barely hung on – just enough to keep on pushing the boulder back up, only for it to roll back down.

This game, likewise, runs in a loop. As the advertising tagline states, the boy’s main goal is to find his sister. Along the way, time and time again, the boy  dies in extremely graphic and gruesome ways, only to end up back in limbo (the place). There are multiple instances where the boy runs into his sister and just as he is about to reach her, in some way, shape, or form, she is taken away. Even at the end screen, when it finally seems as though the two have been reunited, you (as the boy) never actually make contact with her and the screen turns to black.

Another thing to note is that the game runs an auto-save feature that always puts you back where you last started, should you die. This makes going back and finishing puzzles trial-by-death style much simpler. However, when you beat the game and hit start again, you end up back at the beginning – meaning where you started the entire game. Much like the stories of the Sisyphean tasks, the boy, no matter how much he longs to see his sister, no matter how close he gets to her and what challenges he faces, he will never be able to reach her.

The first time I finished the game and hit replay only to find that, despite all my efforts, the agony the boy had gone through and the hours I had given, nothing had progressed, I burst into tears. I don’t use that expression lightly and I’m not exaggerating. As soon as the final moment faded to black, the game returned me to the same spot where the brother and sister had just been together. Now, though, it was once again unoccupied, just like before when I had opened the menu screen. I had a moment of chest-heaving and honestly quite embarrassing tears. But because of the conclusions I had naturally jumped to as I played, the boy’s tragic ending resonated so much more powerfully for me than most other games had. For me, being a lover of Greek Mythology, being terrified of being trapped like Sisyphus had, and loving kids as much as I do, the game made an impact on me that has stuck with me to this day. No matter how well a story is written, the terrors that will always strike people the deepest are the monsters they create for themselves.

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CUE EPIC MUSIC!

The other open interpretation game that I have the immense pleasure to talk to you about is my favorite game of all time, Shadow of the Colossus (referred to as SoTC from here on out). Just taking the game at face value, SoTC, originally released for the PS2 then re-released for the PS3, is an action-adventure game that follows a young man named Wander. Wander travels from far away to The Forbidden Land and asks an entity only known as The Dormin to bring a dead girl he has with him back to life. According to Wander, the woman, Mono, had a “cursed fate”. The Dormin explains that, in order to bring her back, his power must be unlocked by destroying 16 stone statues. These reside in The Dormin’s Temple that currently hold his power sealed. The statues cannot be broken by hand, but they each represent one of the many colossi that live in the Forbidden Land. Defeat the colossus, the statue breaks.

If you weren’t really paying attention to the rest of the game, the opening cut-scene dialogue would probably be where you gleaned most of the plot from and the rest would seem…well, straightforward. Point glowing sword, go in direction of glowing sword, stab monster with glowing sword, repeat.

 

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Seriously, what COULDN’T this thing do?

However, with the way the game is built, a much bigger story comes to light, if you only know where to look. Now, Limbo, unlike this game, is much shorter, has no dialogue, and gives the player a set line they need to follow in order to complete the story. These constraints make theories a little easier to parse out because there are fewer events, keeping everything tied up into a slightly neater package. SoTC, on the other hand, gives the player a huge world to explore, and with each person coming into the game with their own preferences, tendencies, and experiences, there are dozens of theories that people can get behind. Then again, because there are so many questions left unanswered by the game, there is very little that the entire gaming community actually agrees upon.

One thing that is important to note is that SoTC is part of a series created by Team ICO. The first game to come out in the series, Ico, tells the story of the titled young boy born with horns who is trapped inside a castle. He meets a girl there with mysterious powers and together, they attempt to make their escape. The second game to come out was SoTC, and after nine years of waiting, the third game in the series, The Last Guardian, was released. The Last Guardian follows a boy and an oddly cat-like griffon and the two escape a place they are trapped in called The Nest. Gameplay wise, The Last Guardian is basically a mash-up of the best elements of the first two games. Plot wise, it is confirmed that SoTC is a prequel to Ico. But otherwise…

Nothing else is confirmed. Fumito Ueda, the mastermind behind all of the Team ICO games, is notorious for creating these games with minimal dialogue, fictional languages, and “spiritually successing” stories, as he calls them, with the sole intent of never giving the players hints and letting them draw their own conclusions. He wants people to create their own version of what stories his games may tell. While this has driven many a mainstream gamer insane, these elements are exactly what earned them notoriety and cult classic status with a following to go with it. There are tons of websites that have been created specifically to delve into the deepest-hidden corners of SoTC, and some message board threads that have gone for several hundred pages. No, I am not kidding. When intense gamers get their claws on a beauty like this, there’s no way to make them back down.

And it makes sense. The world Ueda’s team created leaves a LOT to be explored and questioned. First off, The Forbidden Land lacks any other monsters aside from the 16 originally mentioned colossi (which seems to break every known rule of typical video games) and the only creatures you meet along the way are the horse you brought with you and some scatterings of birds and salamanders. Yet there are many places where water is very clearly flowing into waterfalls. Food in the form of fruit hanging from trees and those delicious and nutritious salamanders are pretty readily available…So why don’t more creatures live there? What about people?

Then, thinking about the broader scope of the world, The Forbidden Land breaks down into forested areas, expansive deserts, geyser-filled drylands, hidden cities, broken-down coliseums, the temple at the heart of the country (?), and altars scattered across the landscape. Very clearly, many of the structures that are now destroyed or decaying that litter the landscape were manmade. Some of the colossi even appear to be more architecture than colossus as far as make-up. So if the colossi were manmade, were they made specifically to hold The Dormin’s power or did they exist long before? Who used to live here that created all this? Did they leave or did they die? And think about that name – if it appears like so many people used to live here, why was the land forbidden in the first place?

And lastly, that entity you speak to – The Dormin – what is his/her/their deal? The character is voice acted by both a male and female voice actor whose words overlap and reverberate on top of one another. Until the end of the game, The Dormin has no physical form, and when they do assume a form by taking over Wander’s body…

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it is terrifying. (Well, by PS2 standards.)

Like I said, there’s a lot that’s left open to interpretation. Coders and hardcore fans have spent countless hours hunting down every hidden corner of the landscape and finding any secrets that could be tucked away, so after 12 plus years since the game’s release, there isn’t much left to find that hasn’t already been discovered by someone else. But in the end, even if you find every last item and discover every piece of the world, on and off the map, without your own theories to guide you, games like this have no point. The thing that truly gives these games meaning is breathing your own life into them with your logic and imagination at your side.

While I will not claim my theory about this game is the one true theory, and while I’m also sure I’m not the only one who has thought of all this before,  here’s personally what I believe about it…

MY THEORY

The Dormin is a God that is the embodiment of duality; both male and female, light and darkness, life and death. Whenever they speak, their voice is both masculine and feminine simultaneously. The sword leading you to the colossi, powered by The Dormin, directs you using beams of light, yet whenever The Dormin’s power is released from a colossus, dark streaks of shadows consume the main character. In order for The Dormin to grant Mono life, Wander’s life is slowly taken away in the process until he ends up dying. And when The Dormin is destroyed by the priests in their temple, Wander is reborn, albeit cursed.

(Right now, don’t question me on that one. My thoughts on the horns delve into territory in the other games about the horn theory and the timeline and we don’t have enough time for that right now).

Wander and the priests who come to the Forbidden Land share something key in common: The symbols on their clothes are not only almost identical, but they also reflect the weak sigils that appear on each colossus, showing where to insert the ever-reliable glowing sword. Symbols like these are also pretty prominently displayed on pieces of architecture and the altars scattered throughout The Forbidden Land.

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Right to left: Wander/Weak Spot on Colossus/Lord Emon (Priest)

However, when Wander arrives in The Forbidden Land, The Dormin laughs in his face for asking to use their power. When Lord Emon arrives, the priest completely forsakes the place and considers The Dormin an unholy being. Keeping all this in mind, here’s where we go forward with my theory:

Hundreds of years ago, people used to live in the Forbidden Land and revered The Dormin as their supreme God. They built altars of worship across the land for those travelling from one side to the other, but the bridge that was built between their temple and the outside world was meant as a means of keeping others out. The religious peoples of the Forbidden Land regularly asked The Dormin to use their power and, after building cities, beautiful structures, and more, the people decided they wanted to create life. The people who lived in The Forbidden Land created the 16 Colossi and told The Dormin the creatures were being created as offerings to them, to honor their legacy. As such, they wanted to build dual versions of the colossi: Solid, dead structures in his temple and living, full embodiments in the world. Once again, the duality of The Dormin coming into play. The Dormin granted this request, breathing life into the colossi as they had requested.

Of course, just like Wander’s request to bring Mono back to life, when the people asked to have these structures brought to life, they didn’t realize what horrible repercussions would come with it. In order to animate the statues, an equal amount of life would have to be sacrificed and thus, hundreds of people were killed. When the colossi finally did come to life after this costly ritual, they all acted independently of their creators, each acting according to their own will. Even if their bodies were created by man, their spirits gave them free will, and thus, they did not bow to the humans who made them. The more peaceful colossi faded away, while others tore apart the cities and structures that the people had worked so hard to create.

The Dormin’s followers were outraged and saw that The Dormin showed no remorse for their actions. These were beings created by both God and Man, bringing both life and death, both stone and flesh, upholding the same duality of their own power. The Dormin didn’t understand how the people were shocked by this and, as an act of rebellion, the priests used their power to seal away The Dormin, hiding the God’s power in the very creatures they had been coerced to create. Then, when the deed was done and The Dormin was sealed away, the former followers all fled, created a new life and religion for themselves outside, and forbade anyone from setting foot in The Dormin’s realm again.

I do think that, despite being horrified by the practices of The Dormin, some sacrificial rituals continued. They were probably used out of sheer superstition to protect themselves from their old god, should they somehow return. Wander, since he is wearing the same religious symbol as the priests, was a priest or minister in training of a sort. Mono was to be sacrificed, and Wander was supposed to be the one to do it, even though he felt she didn’t deserve to die. I don’t think trying to bring her back to life was an act of love, but I do think he felt regret for killing an innocent girl. After killing her, his shame consumed him until he couldn’t stand it and wanted to find a way to undo his actions. Once he found out that a sacred relic, a forsaken god and a map to The Forbidden Land supposedly held the key to reviving the girl he had unjustly slain, he stole the supplies he needed and ran.

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So when Wander appears at the temple, asking The Dormin to bring back this girl’s life using the power his very people sealed away, wearing the symbol found on the beings this ancient God helped to create, of course they were going to laugh at the irony. With the next generation, everything has come full circle. And even after being set free at the end of the game, with all of the statues that contained their power destroyed, The Dormin could only physically manifest when using Wander’s body. Both free and a prisoner. Both man and God. Both living and dying.

Now let’s say you don’t agree with me. If you think my theories are completely unfounded or you have other evidence you find more convincing, that’s completely okay. In fact, part of what makes open interpretation games so unique and wonderful is that they are built specifically to make people overthink them. The creators of games like these WANT the players to find meaning in the easter eggs they build in – that’s why they wrote it in the first place. Sometimes writers like the theories just as much as what they actually wrote. Players coming up with insane timelines, origin stories spanning generations, new strings of mythology, and finding ways to make Quantum Mechanics or regeneration work in these worlds creates a writer/consumer interactivity that can’t really be found anywhere else. It’s a truly unique phenomenon.

I hope that, alongside Wyvern, I get the chance to both entertain and cause endless agony to players with plots with as much left for investigation as these two amazing titles. Part of it is because I love the way these stories are told. The other part is because, after playing our games time and time again, I can’t wait to see what stories the players come up with on their own.

-Nerissa Hart, Writing Team Member and Marketing Admin Assistant for Wyvern Interactive
NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.

All My (Virtual) Children

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it upwards of a thousand times: the secret narrative weapon of video games is the ability to put the player into the story. They’re seeing, hearing, and living the adventure before them, in a way that no other medium can match.

Since the first time a sentient piece of fungus told players their monarchal love interest was, in fact, in a different fortified structure, game developers have used in-game character relationships as boosts to keep players going. Sometimes you’re saving a loved one, avenging a loved one, redeeming a loved one from the sins that she unknowingly committed because you were actually the one who sinned and thus made her an accessory (Dante’s Inferno is a weird, weird game…), so on and so forth. Almost always, that “loved one” is a significant other. Not every time, mind you, and we’ll get to that, but that’s definitely the most common convention.

The thing about this particular type of connection is that the suspension of disbelief can only go so far. The majority of the players out there aren’t trying to save/avenge/redeem/whatever their digital objects of affection because they are emotionally in love with these characters. The players are doing it because they know their character is; and players want their protagonist to get their own happily ever after.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we can’t be emotionally invested or attached to a fictional character or their relationships. Quite the contrary. I jumped through so many hoops in Dragon Age: Origins for my Warden to end up happily ever after with Morrigan that it was ridiculous… but that’s just it. I did it for my WARDEN, not me. If it was actually me in that world, I don’t think Morrigan and I would have lasted too long. She doesn’t exactly have the personality that would win Mom and Dad over.

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“What are you talking about, I am smiling.”

But because of the narrative that I chose to pursue with my character, it was a perfect match. All of BioWare’s games demand that same level of commitment when you’re trying to pursue a successful, and lasting, romantic attachment to a character… but in the end, it’s the romantic attachment of one character to another character. You’re setting up your happily ever after for your Warden, or your Inquisitor, or Shepard…not yourself. That’s how it should be. If you’re actually, deeply in love with a video game character, and you’re not the main character of the movie Her, please seek help.

Side note: In editing this blog post, Nerissa and I realized we have referenced a BioWare game in pretty much every other post we’ve written. We are not just a BioWare fan club, we promise. That being said. BioWare, if you guys are reading this and you’d like to pay us to be a BioWare fan club, we are 100% down. Anyway, back on track.

The thing is, most game developers that aren’t BioWare, or even CD Projekt Red in the latest Witcher titles, have realized they’re never going to truly rope in a player beyond a certain emotional point without a ton of extra work. So as opposed to trying to craft a rich, meaningfully romantic narrative around the characters, many developers often default to a tried and true, albeit extremely lazy and overdone, trope:

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“I’m emotionally complex.”

It’s sex. If the image above didn’t convey that clearly enough, I’m talking about sex.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place in games for sex and sex appeal. I’ll even admit using that picture of Ivy from Soul Calibur is a little below-the-belt considering she’s just a side character in a fighting game series, not even a romantic interest like we’ve been discussing… but come on, can you blame me for using that picture to make this point? Looking at that, you really have to wonder who’s the better fighter: Ivy, or the poor strap that’s hanging on for dear life.

The trait of our industry I’m cheekily poking fun at is the particularly bad habit of using sex as nothing more than (usually very objectifying) eye candy, or in the case of romantic interests: an incredibly lazy way of getting you interested in the characters ending up together. Unlike the comparatively few games out there that work to make you like the characters themselves, far too many are just hoping they can entice you with the potential prospect of some flashed skin or awkwardly animated character models playing poke the polygons.

And when it comes to romantic relationships, that’s about as far as players can get with games. You either care about the relationship for the sake of the characters, or you have some very lustful expectations for their immediate future. But what about non-romantic relationships. What about something like… oh, I don’t know, parenthood? Can a game make you feel some genuine emotions typically involved with that? I will argue that yes, it can.

I am not a father. I plan to be, and that’s a journey I’m sure my wife and I will be taking in the next few years or so, but I am not a dad yet. But I’ll be darned if there aren’t a few games I’ve played, particularly two, that very smartly tapped into the emotional part of my brain that has that already in me.

SPOILER WARNING: Just to warn you, I am going to spoil the living DAYLIGHTS out of the Last of Us and the BioShock series. So if you haven’t played these masterpieces, would you kindly exit out of this window, proceed to your nearest console or PC, and get to work. If you have played these games, I just made you chuckle.

Within the first half hour, The Last of Us makes it very clear we are not in for a happy ride. You get front row seats to the apocalypse, see a ton of civilians meet their very scary demise, and what was that last one… oh yeah.

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I’M NOT CRYING. YOU’RE CRYING.

The death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah, is probably the most gut-wrenchingly painful video game intro I’ve ever played. If you have a heart, you will cry. If you don’t have a heart, well that’s a pretty big medical red flag, and you should seek help.

The scene sets the tone for the rest of the game, and in particular, the emotional state Joel is in for a good part of it. He’s devastated, he’s hardened, and couldn’t care less about the fate of the world. But a little bit later into the game, he’s charged with taking care of a young teen named Ellie, and the relationship they form is one of the most meaningful and realistic in video game history. Joel comes to terms with Sarah’s death, and the father in him finds new life in taking care of Ellie.

The two girls couldn’t be any different. In the short time we have with Sarah, she seems sweet. She’s innocent, kind, and sentimental. Ellie, on the other hand, swears like a sailor, is short-tempered, and will stab anyone who wants to harm her right in the heart. But in the time we spend with her, we see that Ellie does have a softer side. She’s vulnerable, and she does need someone to be there for her, and that person ends up being Joel.

The great thing is, because of the way Naughty Dog constructs it, you don’t just want to protect Ellie because Joel does… you just want to protect her. Period. See, Naughty Dog gets you invested in Ellie through Joel, but unlike the romantic relationships we talked about earlier, the buck doesn’t stop with that. She might be leaning on Joel for support (and vice versa), but she’s leaning on you, the player too. You care about this girl, and that’s the genius. You care. Not you as Joel – you. After the hell she has been through, and the hell you have been put through AS Joel with Sarah’s death, when this girl puts her faith in you, by the end of the game you are willing to, almost literally, go to war to ensure that she comes out okay. Joel is still the representation of you in the game, yes, but you aren’t just doing what you do for Joel. You’re doing it for Ellie, because Ellie deserves it. The devotion Joel develops for Ellie as the story progresses is funneled so smoothly to us that we barely even notice it, but by the end of the game you cannot help but feel an obligation to take care of her… no matter the cost.

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Let’s be honest, none of us even tried to see if we could spare this dude.

And by the end of the game, after an ending I can only describe as “overwhelmingly thought-provoking” without getting completely off topic, I realized what Naughty Dog had done. They had tapped into my emotions by making me feel very, very real feelings for a fictional character. They tapped into an emotion all of us should have: wanting to protect an innocent life. In particular an innocent life that is looking to us for protection. In this case, our kid. It didn’t matter if Ellie was “real” or not, because of the way the narrative was constructed. When we were playing that game, our priority was protecting her. It was to help her keep going. And that’s awesome.

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And then RIGHT when we had finally stopped crying, they released THIS.

 

Ellie tapped into the parental side of me that I imagine I’ll experience mostly in the first two decades or so of my children’s lives: he need to protect them, to shelter them, from the dangers and darkness in the world. What BioShock did though… what they tapped into was the side of parenting that I think is probably the scariest part of all: not being able to protect your children, because it’s time they faced the world on their own.

The whole BioShock franchise has so many themes and metaphors for parents and parenting, it could give the Andy Griffith Show a run for its money. In the first game, you play as a protagonist who has been unknowingly brainwashed since birth to go on a rampaging Terminator-esque killing spree to take out none other than, surprise, your own father.

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Who’s da good murder baby? WHO’S DA GOOD WITTLE MURDER BABY?

 

BioShock 2, though a lot of people give it flack, has a phenomenal final act that deals with, amongst other things, a young child who wants nothing more than to feel loved by a parental figure… and then also proceeds to go on a vengeful spree of destruction. But this time we’re totally cool with it and it’s justified – we’re not just along for the ride because we’re brainwashed. It’s complicated.

Finally though, the real kicker for this franchise is Infinite. And particularly, in my opinion, the gem of all video game companion characters: Elizabeth Comstock.

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So. Many. Emotions.

 

Now, I told you I was going to have spoilers here, so I’m going to spill this right out the gate: Elizabeth is your protagonist, Booker’s, daughter, but neither you nor he know it until the very end of the game. See, Booker had gambling debts, and like any upstanding citizen, to pay them off he sold his infant daughter to some scientists who came knocking on his door saying they’d make all his problems go away if they could have the girl. Turns out, these particular scientists were from a parallel universe, where Booker is actually regarded as a Prophet and is looking for a successor, so who better than his own flesh and blood… sort of. Anyway, Booker decides that selling children really isn’t the most morally pure option, and tries to save his daughter, but doesn’t succeed. The beginning of the game is decades later, when Booker has been so eaten apart with guilt he’s repressed this event entirely. However, when he and Elizabeth’s paths cross again, he’s almost immediately drawn to care for her and protect her. And, like with Joel, we feel the exact same emotions. But here’s the kicker with Elizabeth… we can’t. At least not for long. Elizabeth is a grown woman, and no matter how hard we try to keep the bubbly innocence she has when we first meet her intact, a world of despair and death very quickly takes its toll on her. Gone is the sweet girl who was excited to see the sights of the world. Gone is the girl who laughed as she danced with complete strangers on a pier. Very quickly, a world of violence and corruption turns Elizabeth into a hardened, stone-faced woman who loses faith in the world she used to dream about living in… and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch unfold.

I won’t completely destroy the ending of Infinite, or the absolute must-play conclusion of Elizabeth’s story in the Burial at Sea DLC’s, but I’ll give away enough to make my point. No matter what we do to try to make Elizabeth okay again, no matter what we do to protect her, to take care of her, to try and let her live a happy, care-free life… it doesn’t work. The ending of Elizabeth’s tale left me completely speechless, and numb inside. Because, like with Ellie, I wanted to protect this daughter figure. I knew it was my job to watch out for her, but in the end, I couldn’t. And it was devastating.

As I said with Last of Us, though, that’s the genius. Anyone who plans to be a parent knows it won’t always (or… you know ever) be easy. At the end of the day, there’s going to be a time when they’re driving off to college, and we’re waving from the front door. The same door we waited for their bus, the same door where we watched them head out for their first date, and the same door we can only hope and pray we’ll be able to greet them at for many decades to come. Watching Elizabeth’s choices beyond my control was extremely tough, but also incredibly real. Because like a real kid, at some point… you have to let them go. You have to let them make a choice, and you did your best to ensure they’ll make the right ones, and be okay. Sometimes they will… and sometimes they won’t.

Video games are a way to throw someone into a story. To make them experience it firsthand. We all know they aren’t real, we all know that when we turn off the TV the characters don’t know it, but stories have a way of getting in your head. Fictional characters can touch us so much because we relate to what they’re enduring, even if it’s just a metaphor for things that have happened or will happen to us, or our loved ones. If there are any kinds of stories I want us at Wyvern to be known for in the years to come, it’s ones that can grip you like these can. Ones that use fiction to speak to your heart. Ones make you recall emotions that you have felt, or will feel, in your real life. So hug your loved ones tighter, and watch out for them… be they Ellie, Elizabeth, or the much, much more important figures in your life that they represent.

Jonathan Wine, Creative Director, Wyvern Interactive 2017

 

NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.