Tag Archives: TeamWyvern

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?

 

HL2 Heroine.jpg

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. 

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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:

soul-caliber

“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.