Tag Archives: story

A True RPG: Jonathan Will Remember That

The term “Role-Playing Game” has evolved a lot over the years. I won’t claim to be an expert in this area (that’s actually Nerissa’s territory), but from my understanding, the original use applied mostly to tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, in which you as the player would actually take on a “role” of the character you had made and were representing. These characters had motives, a backstory, a distinct personality, history within the world/with other characters, etc.; all of which would influence your decisions and affect your judgement while you were playing the game. You weren’t playing as yourself, you were playing as a character, and making the decisions for the character based on that filter.

 

Video games, however, have greatly changed our perception of this term. Nowadays games like Call of Duty have what we call “RPG Elements”, which in a nutshell is usually things like getting XP, character customization, picking a class, etc. However, I don’t know many people who play Call of Duty (or any games that simply have “elements” of RPG’s) that worry about their character’s motivations. These elements are typically nothing more than vehicles to upgrade your character to kick more tail in multiplayer matches. Or the latest trend, for developers to get more money out of players thanks to microtransactions.

 

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Ladies and gentleman, the source of all things evil.

 

Now, before someone stops me and talks about games that you know we at Wyvern here love like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I think of those as something different still. I didn’t used to, but a game I just played has changed that for me. We’ll get to that. I fully acknowledge those are “RPG’s”… but are they the same thing as what started the genre? Are they “role-playing games?” I don’t think so.

 

While yes, I’m playing as a character that I made… that’s just it. Most people that play those games don’t design their character before-hand; we make the character up as we go. The experiences we have while playing the game are what molds our personality and character. I know very few people that play epic RPGs and think things like “Well, I chose this color armor because I believe it represents the family-environment that So-And-So was raised in before she became a soldier for the Galactic Federation.” Or that pick a specific sword for their character because it reminds them of training sessions at home before the evil armies attacked. No, of course not. Because in those games what concerns us is aimlessly wandering around disgustingly huge world maps in search of side quests and treasure, or wondering if we should take up a certain witch’s offer to help her sire that world’s version of Damien in order to save our own skin, and the world.

 

Morrigan and the kid

Don’t you backtalk your mother, foul creature.

 

If you’d asked me before what I thought an role playing game should be, I would have pointed you to these games without fail. I say again, these are great examples of games that we label under the “genre” of RPG. They let you live and breath in the world, they let you affect the outcome, and by all accounts they do everything they should, and they do it well. But if you ask me now what I think a role-playing game should be… my opinion has changed; and it’s all thanks to a little tale involving a guy named Bigby Wolf.

 

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I keep trying to hum this theme song, but instead I keep mixing it up with the themes from Archer and Jessica Jones.

 

The Wolf Among Us is based on the Fable comic series by Vertigo Comics. The basic premise is that characters from the stories and fairy tales we know are not only real, but have had to leave the land of fantasy and come exist, secretly, in our world. If that sounds a lot like the Once Upon a Time television program on ABC, it’s incredibly similar… if Once Upon a Time was produced by HBO. Because of this, I actually have two warnings: one before you continue this article, and one before you play the game. The first (for the article), which you should be used to if you’ve read anything from our Wyvern Wednesday posts before, is a full-on SPOILER WARNING GOING FORWARD for this post. Because it’s me, it’s who I am.

 

The second, however, is a warning in particular to any of you parents out there who see the fun, comic-book style art and hear names like “Snow White”, “Georgie Porgie”, and the “Big Bad Wolf” and think “Oh boy, this sounds like a great game for my kids!” It’s not. It is absolutely, 100% not. The Fables/Wolf Among Us world is dark. It is DARK. There’s at least three decapitations involved in a murder investigation in this game, it’s implied Snow was sexually assaulted by the dwarves a long time ago (which she understandably doesn’t like to talk about), forced prostitution is a critical plot point, and the language is more colorful than a flag demonstration at a Pride Parade. This is not a kid’s fairy tale.
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But with that being said, the game, narrative, characters, and world-building are fantastic. It’s absolutely fantastic. The world feels fresh and exciting, there’s a new spin on famous characters around every corner, the game has a wonderful “whodunit” feeling to it, and perhaps most important in games like this, the moral choices that you (the player) have to make feel weighty and important…

 

… but not in the way you’d expect if you’d only played RPG’s like we talked about before. In games like that, your main character is essentially you. Your choices are affecting the world around you, you have almost a total control over the outcomes of conversations, and because of that you can pretty much always guarantee how those outcomes will affect the future game. If I’m nice to this party member, they’ll like me more. If I’m mean to this shopkeeper, that shop probably won’t give me great prices. These choices have direct consequences, and your character is essentially a blank slate that you get to mold into your own image… or whatever image you so choose.

 

The Wolf Among Us doesn’t do that. You play as Bigby Wolf, which, if you say it slow enough, you can quickly figure out is the Big Bad Wolf. The same Big Bad Wolf that blew down the Three Little Pig’s house. The same Big Bad Wolf that ate Little Red Riding Hood. Needless to say, he’s not winning many popular votes with the other fairy tale characters. And just to further complicate things, Bigby is now the Sheriff of Fabletown, so his popularity is lower than low. Characters don’t trust him, accusations fly at him about stuff that he did before you, the player, were ever responsible for his actions. He has a backstory. He’s his own character.

 

And that was immediately what struck me about this game. The character I’m controlling isn’t just an empty vessel to fill with my personality. Instead, I’m the little angel or devil on his shoulder; Bigby is channeling me, but he’s still Bigby. Now yes, I know that this is the standard formula for TellTale games and a few others (Life is Strange comes to mind), but this was my first outing with one, and it floored me how unique that felt. Suddenly my decisions weren’t based upon what I wanted, or what was best for me. I was thinking of Bigby. I was thinking of what he would have wanted, what would have been best for him. I was truly “playing” a role. I had parameters I wanted to follow.

 

But on the flip side, this also gave me a huge sense of empowerment and justification I have rarely felt in a game with moral choices. I have a tendency in games like this to be the absolute goody-two-shoes. I’m the one who bends over backwards to make everyone happy, to choose every extreme good moral choice I possibly can. Even if I don’t necessarily even agree with those choices, there’s a little programming glitch in my brain that always makes me be the most good “good guy” ever. I did not feel that controlling Bigby. What dictated my decisions was, yes, what was best for Bigby overall; but I also had the opportunity to play into his personality a bit. And the Big Bad Wolf has a temper… and that made this fun.

 

A prime example of this was about halfway through the game, when you kick down the door of the “Pudding & Pie”, Fabletown’s resident strip club and brothel. The owner/pimp of the establishment is Georgie Porgie, because if you’re utilizing fairy tale characters for your story how on earth could someone named Georgie Porgie not be a seedy lowlife. You’ve interacted with Georgie earlier in the game, and you have already had the opportunity to rough him up a bit. This dude totally deserves it too; he’s a murder suspect in the dual homicide of two of his girls, he’s abusive, and he has awful taste in tattoos. As much as I wanted to wrap this dude around his own stripper pole the first time I went to the club, for the sake of Bigby, I didn’t. Bigby is trying to establish himself as someone reliable, someone who has changed, someone the citizens of Fabletown can look up to. I respected that, and Georgie even wanted me to go hard on him, even going so far as to bait me. So, I resisted.

 

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BUT SERIOUSLY. LOOK AT THIS TWIT.

 

And yet, and yet, during that second visit, the situation was very different. It’s been pretty obvious up to this point that Bigby and Snow White (who is the interim Deputy Mayor for the majority of the game) have a thing, and it’s portrayed beautifully. It’s also very obvious that part of Bigby’s self-improvement comes from the fact he wants to be someone worthy of Snow’s affections, or at least her respect. And I wanted to back him up for that. I wanted to be the wolf’s wingman. So when we walked into the Pudding & Pie for the second time, with Snow beside us, and Georgie acknowledged us with the lovely greeting of “Ey Bigby, come to get lessons for your b*tch, eh?” I didn’t even have to think. I clocked him. Hard.

 

This is honestly not something I’ve done often in video games. I usually have my negotiation stats leveled up so much I can convince a murderer to turn himself in with an Excel spreadsheet breaking down every piece of evidence we’ll need to put him behind bars for life. I very rarely take the physical route in other games, because it often will lock off options furthering an opportunity with that character later on. But this time I wasn’t worried about my opportunities. I was thinking of Bigby. And Bigby loves Snow, and has a very pent up, nasty temper. So when George insulted her, when he treated her like someone below him… I rearranged his face a bit. And it felt so, so good.

 

The other thing I do in video games is play the “harbinger of justice” role. If I am at the end of a game, and I’ve finally defeated the ultimate bad guy, and the game gives me a choice of sparing or ending him/her for good… 99.9% percent of the time there’s going to be a fresh grave in the cemetery. I usually take this route because most of the time the bad guys in modern games are so sadistically evil Gandhi would scream for them to be burned at the stake. The true villain of the Wolf Among Us is no exception. Extortion, racketeering, ordering the assassination of innocents, taking advantage of the poor, encouraging violence from his cronies… the Crooked Man (yes, from the crooked house, with the crooked cat… that one) is a bad dude. At the end of the game, you have the option to spare him or kill him.

 

I wanted to kill him. Oh buddy, did I want to kill this guy. After everything I’d watched him do, all the people who had come crying and broken to me about how their lives were ruined because of him. I was ready to end it all right there, to make sure he never could hurt anyone again. But I didn’t. Because it wasn’t about me. It was about Bigby. With all of Fabletown watching the Big Bad Wolf, I wanted to prove he’d changed. I wanted to give people the chance to see the protective, caring, relatable character I had spent so much time with. I wanted Snow to see that huffing and puffing wasn’t the only thing he was capable of. So I let the Crooked Man live. And you know what? That felt really great too.

 

It’s moments like this that have cemented Wolf in my brain. It’s made me have a desire to play more games where the characters channel me, but they’re more than me. It’s made me realize how powerful it can be to play the voice in a character’s head, and not the character itself. And most importantly, it’s made me realize what playing a role really is. And I will remember that.

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A Breath of Fresh Air

Nerissa here.

Since I started working with Wyvern, I have had the chance to write about everything from games with Open-Interpretation storylines, major franchises, reboots, the gaming community, what happens when your choices completely change a game, and storytelling in general. However, I have been avoiding talking about the series that brings me the most joy since I started writing blog posts for Wyvern. All of the posts I write are to make a point, whether it be about the beauty of games or the direction they’re heading in for the future. I didn’t want to diverge just for the sake of fangirling. But today is the day: the day I can address it. So, here is the truth.

Ever since I was 8 years old, The Legend of Zelda series has meant more to me than any other gaming franchise in the world. It is, hands down, my favorite series of all time.

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I know, I know – Legend of Zelda? Really? To some people, this seems like an obvious choice, and to others this comment is kind of questionable. Why LoZ? There are several other series out there that I absolutely love and have a soft spot for. There are some games that are overall better than some Zelda titles. Even so, the LoZ series will ALWAYS be at the top of my list. Just to give you some context, the first game I ever beat was The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons for the Gameboy Color (back when they were still called gameboys. Wow, I feel old). Growing up, there were several games I was not allowed to play, but my parents always gave the LoZ series a thumbs up because they were all rated E for Everyone and by the time Twilight Princess (Rated T for Teen) came out, I was a teenager. I was obsessed with fantasy and loved rich worlds, so learning about each game’s new world rules and seeing characters carry over made the series my favorite companion on a long trip and my best comfort when I needed something familiar to go back to.

Granted, the series has its faults, as any other does: First off, as far as originality, this is one franchise where you can call the designers out for cutting and pasting puzzles and characters, because Nintendo does that literally ALL THE TIME. If you’ve played a few LoZ games before, you can start to recognize the patterns, especially where many dungeon-specific items repeatedly show up in almost every game in the series (Looking at you, grappling hook). The grunts and shouts from Link are incredibly mockable and some of the games in the series flat-out stink.

And don’t even get me started on the TV show.

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“Well excuuuuuuse me, Princess.”

But then, look at the flip-side. The first game in the Legend of Zelda series, aptly titled The Legend of Zelda, was released on February 21, 1986. In the 31 years since its initial debut, the series has been bringing non-stop innovations to the way that video games function. Many tropes that carry through to other games are taken directly from the Legend of Zelda. For example…

Z-Targeting – The gameplay mechanic used in games like Kingdom Hearts, Psychonauts, and Metroid: Prime was originally introduced with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo’s developers were trying to not only create an expansive (by that time’s standards, anyway) 3D world, but one that players could easily move throughout. This was invented as a result of trying to figure out how to more easily fight and locate enemies within these 3D spaces.

Camera Control – While camera control in 3D games was introduced with Mario 64, it still had quite a ways to go when it comes to seamless control. And then, once again, everything changed when Ocarina of Time attacked – I mean, eh, was released. OoT brought in a much easier camera system to pick up on and 3D games have been adopting the camera control system using analog sticks ever since.

Context Controls – Press A to speak, B to use equipped weapon, Start for Menu, Select to Save/Quit, R to jump right, L to jump left. Analog stick/control pad to move. By now, these seem to be a given when it comes to designing a game, but this innovation didn’t exist in a way that allowed you to interact with specific world objects and characters in a more detailed way until, you guessed it, Ocarina of Time. Ever since appearing in there, it has taken over RPGs and platformers.

Save Points – With the release of the original Legend of Zelda games, players were shifted from a world of stagnant levels to replay over and over from the start to being allowed to play in sprawling worlds with multiple levels and checkpoints throughout.

The list goes on. The Legend of Zelda series made headway and, because of its expansive world-building, now classic story, and large maps full of ways to explore its corners, it has become one of the most notorious game series of all time.

Now, at a certain point, even when you choose to innovate, eventually new ideas become classics, then tropes, then annoyingly unoriginal ideas and last, if they get REALLY unlucky, memes.

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So, needless to say, after a while, the fairy companion, dungeon items, Master Sword, and the fights deflecting orbs of light weren’t going to cut it anymore. The series needed a revamp. And for a while, as Nintendo tried to figure out what direction to go in, they had a few stumbles. As much as some of their classic titles are legendary, a few of the new releases, especially for the handheld systems have been…well…

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Triforce Heroes: Where Fashion Rules all of the Drablands.

…Bizarre, to say the least. Games like Spirit Tracks and Triforce Heroes, while relatively interesting gameplay wise, had MAJOR flaws, especially with the overwhelmingly ridiculous writing. In other LoZ games, most insane moments were left to a character or two to take charge of, such as Tingle. However, these games just took the Tingle recipe and drenched every single corner of the map with it, which made them hard to stomach.

And then, the incredible happened – the latest Legend of Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, was released.

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It’s…so…beautiful. Cannot…contain…

For the first time in years, the Legend of Zelda formula had been altered, and not in a minor way. This game completely changed the way that the story was told, the ability to explore, the way you live, AND the way you fight. Some people are even calling it one of the greatest games of all time. (I have one minor complaint about BoTW, but aside for that one I wholeheartedly agree). So, what made this game so incredible, for loyal fans and new gaming thrill-seekers alike?

  1. Open-World Exploration

Not only did Breath of the Wild allow for freedom of choice in the exploration by setting it in an open world, but it encouraged its players to play the game and explore the map in any way they wanted. The dungeons had no specific order and, in fact, if you don’t want to go through any of the main story, from the very beginning of the game, the entrance to Calamity Ganon’s chambers are unlocked. Granted, they are heavily guarded by Guardians and other obstacles, but if you wanted to, it would be possible to boost your health and items by completing shrines and exploring the lands, then take out Calamity Ganon without completing ANY of the main story. This sort of freedom of decision-making when it comes to the order of events and play-style is unprecedented with any of its predecessors. Also, the map?

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6 times the size of Skyrim’s, just to put it into perspective.

  1. Weapons don’t last forever

Breath of the Wild refuses to hold the players hand throughout the process. From the start, you will realize that weapons, depending on their size, shape, age, and materials, have different strength levels and can be easy or difficult to wield. Then, after fighting your first few Bokoblins with a wooden spear, another thing becomes painfully evident as the weapon disappears into the air in a flurry of glowing shards: Weapons in this world break. So don’t get attached to the Giant Boomerang if you get it because you will have it for twenty minutes and then your pretty little heart will sink.

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This thing was incredible, you guys.

Each weapon is assigned a strength and durability level, forcing the player to constantly adapt to new fighting strategies based on the weapons currently at your disposal. Some give you use of ranged attacks, while others require getting into very close-quarters in order to even land a hit. This made every single encounter a challenge, as you not only had to assess how many enemies you were dealing with each time, but how to use the environment and weapons you had to your advantage.

  1. The Master Sword WASN’T easily earned.

In almost all prior Legend of Zelda games, obtaining the Master Sword (or Picori Blade/Four Sword) is integrated into the main quest. As long as you’re continuing the main story, you will eventually gain access to this legendary weapon. However, in BoTW, the Master Sword is NOT easily earned – In fact, if you don’t know where it is or don’t work for it, you may not get it at all.

WARNING: FROM HERE ON IN, MAJOR GAMEPLAY/CONTENT SPOILERS AHEAD.

In this chapter of Hyrule’s history, the Master Sword is hidden. If you are a fan of the series, true to form, it IS actually somewhere relatively familiar.

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Like its predecessor, A Link to the Past, the Master Sword is being guarded in the Lost Woods. However, even after you explore enough of the map to actually find Faron Woods, then you have to get through the initial “navigate the Lost Woods” puzzle so you don’t wander into the fog by mistake.

And that’s not the hard part.

The hard part is that in this game, in order to wield the sword of legend, you ACTUALLY have to prove that you are strong enough to handle it or the sword will sap your strength until you die. That’s right, ladies and gents. In order to pull the master sword from the ground where it lies, you have to have a total of 13 Heart Containers. But the sword yielded major benefits once gained. The Master Sword is the ONLY weapon in the game that will never break – with continual use, it will “lose charge”, but then you just have to use other weapons for about 10 minutes. Just enough time for it to recharge and then to switch back. Not only that, but the sword also deals extra damage to the Guardians – for those of you who haven’t played the game yet, these enemies basically made traversing the landscape’s more difficult areas impossible in the beginning of the game.

  1. What you wear and what you eat matters.

Aside from drinking potions and Lon-Lon Milk, most other LoZ titles don’t include consumables. However, these have become rather commonplace in games like Bioshock, Dark Cloud, and Fallout: New Vegas, where alcohol could give you the pick-me-up that was needed while also blurring the screen for a few seconds. So Legend of Zelda followed suit, and then some: Not only did food give you health and stamina, but you had to cook all the foods yourself in order to get the real boosts you need and, on top of that, certain ingredients and recipes give you boosts to your speed, climbing ability, cold/heat resistance, and more.

You don’t have to eat your weight in game to get boosts, though. If you’re in an area that is consistently cold that you will need to be in for a while, there are different pieces of clothing that can be found, earned, or purchased that give you resistance to these weather factors. So if you don’t have peppers for cold resistance, no problem – just put on the Snowquill Tunic and you’re good to go!

  1. The story is presented out of Chronological order

As mentioned previously, BoTW allows players to explore the world in their own way, at their own speed. This mechanic carried over to the story, where, by gathering memories and awakening the Divine Beasts (which, in this game, serve as the “dungeons”), you begin to understand what happened with Link, Zelda, the Champions piloting the Divine Beasts, and why they failed against Calamity Ganon during their original quarrel. I remember that the first memory I ever found was one of Zelda trying to get into a Shrine, realizing she was unable to do so, and when she saw me, brushed me off and shouted at me to stop following her.

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But…Whuddidido?

Oh. Okay. THAT’S an introduction.

While you have no choice in what you say or in the direction of the plot, like the choice-directed stories in the Dragon Age, Fable, and Mass Effect games, the presentation of these memories in different orders for every player makes each experience and how the pieces come together unique. Once you gather all the memories, you CAN go through them in the actual order that they happened, but during the actual events of the game, I found it fascinating to see how the picture came together for me personally. It left me wondering how other people felt during their playthroughs. It may not be the choice-based story that I personally would love to see in the future, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

  1. For the first time in a LoZ title, actual Voice Acting

You know how I said I had one problem with the latest Legend of Zelda title? Yeah…This would be it.

In keeping up with the times, Nintendo decided that the logical next step for the Legendary saga of Link was to add voice acting; mind you, Link is still the silent protagonist (with mild grunting interspersed) that we have come to know and love, but all the other main characters are voice acted during cut-scenes. This doesn’t happen during every scene, mind you, but often enough that it is a large element contributing to how the game is experienced.

As an actor myself, I found the voice acting in the game to be…well, pretty underwhelming. On one hand, some characters were handled rather tactfully, such as the Champions Daruk and Urbosa who get extra stamps of approval in my book. However, most of the other performances are just average and Zelda’s is probably the worst in the game. And considering this is the first game where the story is really hers, not Link’s, you’d think that would be the voice they put the most thought and work into. Yet sure enough, as you play, she perpetually sounds like she will burst into tears at any moment. Even when she is happy. Or angry. Or joking. ALWAYS sounds like she is whining. Nintendo, you are a company worth millions, yet you couldn’t put a little more effort into the casting process?

Now, this isn’t to say that the CHARACTER Zelda is whiny, because she is most certainly not. In fact, the past few titles have made more of an effort to give Zelda depth, starting with Windwaker, moving forward with  Skyward Sword, and now leading into this. By the time we hit Breath of the Wild, Zelda has become a legitimately strong character. In this installment in particular, she is fascinated by the sciences, the technology of their ancestors, and works relentlessly to unlock the powers she is supposed to have due to her bloodline. It shows how jealous she is of Link for his talents and the fact that she hasn’t been able to live up to the expectations of her kingdom. And in the midst of war, even when she hasn’t unlocked her powers, SHE STILL CHARGES HEADLONG INTO BATTLE LIKE THE TRUE CHAMPION SHE IS. This bit got me going, guys. Out of all the archs we’ve seen in these games, for Zelda, this one takes the cake. The story was so great that the voice acting was something I was able to overlook if, for no other reason, to see that plotline through to the end.

The Legend of Zelda series has been seeking a new path to push forward in for years, and since its inception, has been at the forefront of the gaming industry. With this new release, both the saga itself and other fantasy games like it have a new standard to try to live up to. Exploring the world of Breath of the Wild was exciting, beautiful, and with its originality all-around, served as a breath of fresh air.

 

–Nerissa Hart, Director of Marketing and Writer at Wyvern Interactive

 

The contained images are not property of or created in association with Wyvern Interactive, LLC.

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.

 

HL2 Puzzle

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. 

Why I Do This

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Jonathan Wine, during his time studying at George Mason University.

You know the feeling you get when a song is stuck in your head? You could be driving your car, sitting at work, brushing your teeth, anything… and out of nowhere that beat comes into your mind, and you find yourself singing the chorus, and maybe the one full verse you actually know? Everyone goes through that. Maybe it’s the newest catchy thing on the radio, a Disney song, or something you just heard off a new Pandora recommendation.

Imagine now though that instead of a beat… what your mind constantly calls up is a world. An entire world, brimming with scenery, cultures, and history, and instead of lyrics you get a cast of characters with their own trials, victories, personalities and everything else that goes into defining the word “being.” These don’t pop into your brain from JUST hearing something though; maybe they come from seeing a screenshot of a far-away place. Maybe they come from a sentence, or a tone, or the most powerful instigator of all: an experience. If you’re imagining that…Welcome to what every moment is like inside my head.

I’ve always been a storyteller, though I didn’t always know it. For a while I thought I was going to be a comic book illustrator, but I quickly realized I cared much more about Batman’s motivations, his intricacies, and how he was going to take down the next villain than the style of his suit or the pose he was striking overlooking Gotham on some rooftop. Once I locked into this, I figured out even faster I had to tell stories through games. Not because I’m a big gamer (I really wasn’t until college), but because the game can totally get the “tune” out of my head: I can make every corner of that entire world, I can bring those characters to life in all their glory… I can put you IN the story.

I don’t want to get the tune out because it bothers me either; quite the contrary. It’s A, because I REALLY want to experience them myself. If you can find me someone who doesn’t get excited by seeing their work in front of them, I’ll show you someone who needs to find a new career. And B, most importantly, because I know I can touch people with them. I know I can inspire them. More on that later.

The title of this post though, is “Why I Do This.” And that’s the reason. Because I want to enhance people’s lives through stories. But the title also means something else. “Why do I keep doing something that’s going to take so much back-tracking and be this insanely frustrating and difficult?” (You can see why I went with the former title.) The answer to that one is thanks to two individuals, my “two” best friends. You’ll understand later why that has quotation marks around it.

I graduated with my Associate’s in 2012, and starting that Fall semester I knew I would be living on campus at George Mason University, a Junior in their Computer Game Design program. I was beyond excited, but I was also nervous. I love my parents dearly, and I knew that leaving them would be tough (my dad has a medical condition that makes mobility difficult, and I had been trying to help my family any way I could), and my brain was racing to figure out more and more ways to guilt me, scare me, and convince me going was a bad idea. My parents were excited for me to go…But as the calendar days got crossed off, I got more and more apprehensive. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if they REALLY needed me at home when something went down? What if I had picked the wrong career this whole time and everyone had 400 page scripts in their heads, and I was just being pretentious thinking I had the right to follow up on it?

It took my best friend, dragging me outside by practically my ear, to set me straight.

I love this dude, and he and I have been best friends since we were 7. So by the time we had gotten around to college age, we were at that point where we didn’t only know just what to say, we knew exactly how it had to be said. After a very long, emotional conversation filled with analogies, sarcasm, tears and laughs, he looked me dead in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder, and said with an unwavering confidence: “Jonathan, we’ve been best friends for almost two decades. I know you… J-Man, you were born to do this. Now go do it. Go tell those stories.” I inhaled, nodded, and was unpacking in my dorm before I knew it.

The next two+ years of getting the degree went by like a flash. I met people who are now some of my dearest friends, I got engaged to my high school sweetheart (now wife, might I add), I found an absolutely amazing team, and of course founded Wyvern officially. It was great…and very overwhelming. 

I would be lying if I said some days I hadn’t almost lost track of why I was there. The passion never died, and the stories were always still in my head, but some days those got buried by homework, projects, exams, wedding plans, and realizations that I hadn’t eaten in 10 hours. Life always manages to find a way to fill itself up with stress and anxiety, and mine was no exception. By senior year, I was a wreck, and sometimes the only way to cool my brain off on a school night was to play (not make) a game. But ironically, the thing that rejuvenated everything again, the thing that pushed me back into the most passionate mindset I know how to have… was just that. A video game.

I am not afraid to tear up if something touches me. I’m very comfortable with that part of myself. I will let loose a few floodgates at movies, shows, books, games, great pieces of music…you name it. So in my last semester, when my roommate saw me biting my lip at a particularly “bromantic” scene in a game, he probably just thought I was being me. But it went so, so much deeper than that.

Just to give warning: very mild spoilers ahead for Mass Effect 3.

In the very final act of ME3, you get a respite before the final battle. Like any game, this

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Garrus Vakarian, Mass Effect 3 (Copyright Bioware 2016, Wyvern does not claim any ownership of this character or the games it is affiliated with)

 

point is made to let you make any tweaks on your character, make any final upgrades, save your game, etc. But because Bioware is amazing, it is also one long, beautifully crafted goodbye. Commander Shepherd, your character, has the opportunity to have a last few personal, intimate moments with every member of the Normandy crew that has become such a tight-knit family. It’s a really peaceful, wonderful set of interactions… one of which I was totally unprepared for. One of the most organic aspects of the Mass Effect series is how every person that plays it always has a different favorite character, different favorite moment, etc. But for me, my boy was always Garrus Vakarian. He was funny, he was willing to get in my face… and he always reminded me of… someone. I guess he just had one of “those” personalities. As for a favorite moment, the one I’m about to list hit me harder than any other art medium ever has. It defined EVERYTHING that a game should be for me, and most importantly, helped me remember what made me…me.

Again, without getting too spoiler heavy, the conversation with my Turian buddy started off sarcastic and quippy…until it didn’t. Out of nowhere, Garrus throws out a line akin to “I don’t know if human heaven and Turian heaven are the same place, but if it is, meet me at the bar.”

Thanks Garrus, here come the misty eyes.

But he wasn’t done, oh no. He had one final gut-punch waiting for me. Garrus looked at my character, smiled, and said: “Oh and Shepherd, forgive the insubordination, but this old friend has an order for you… Go out there. And give them hell. You were born to do this.”

I was too stunned to cry. Then I wasn’t. I lost it. I sat in my dorm, and the conversation two years ago came at me like a flood. I had to put down my controller and just sit for a while to take it all in. “You were born to do this.”

That familiarity I had always felt with this video game character. This 3D character model with some programming and voicing acting attached to it… it wasn’t just my best friend in the game. It had been my best friend. I re-analyzed every character I had really felt like I had grown close to in my time in the Mass Effect universe, and started connecting dots. Tali reminded me a ton of my little sister. Wrex reminded me of my roommate. The list goes on and on…

Why do I do this? Why did I choose the career path that has been proven to be one of the most stressful, and one of the hardest to break in to? Why did I choose to go the route of an indie/start-up, when I know that makes everything way down the road even harder and scarier? It’s because of those stories, those worlds, those characters, and those moments in my head. It’s because that blast of emotion I felt when a weird bird alien spoke to me.

I want to reach out and touch people. I want to pump them up. I want to be able to motivate them to pursue their dreams, I want them to get the tunes out of their head…whatever they are. Because stories can do that; they can make you keep going. They can make you ace your senior project. They can make you graduate with every top honor the university has to offer. They can make you force yourself to balance your social life, work life, and dreams all at once. I want to tell stories because I can’t think of a better to touch the lives of a million people, some without them even realizing it.

And perhaps simplest of all…because two people, whom I respect very much, told me I was born to. And that’s good enough for me.

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