The Head and the Heart, or, My 2013 Game of the Year

Halfway through the year it became pretty clear to me, and probably a bunch of other folks too, that my game of the year was going to be a tug of war between Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

I know about PowerPoint.

I know about PowerPoint.

There was a pretty solid helping of great games that came out in 2013, but none of them took hold of my thoughts and feelings quiet as forcefully as Bioshock and The Last of Us.

Readers may bemoan my omission of Grand Theft Auto V as a contender for the best game of 2013, but for all of Rockstar Studio’s satirical witticism and over the top gameplay the thin venire of sarcasm draped over every moment of GTAV kept it from reaching the earnest emotional or contemplative heights of Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us. GTAV is a terrific piece of pop art, but it never quite punched me straight in the heart or sent my brain into overdrive.

Those thoughtful and emotive heights were reached in large part due to fantastic acting in both games. You can’t have a discussion of The Last of Us or Bioshock without touching on the acting.

The lead in both games, Troy Baker, has been on fire this year, not only taking on the roles of Joel in The Last of Us and Booker DeWitt in Infinite, but also inheriting the role of the Joker form the legendary Mark Hamill in the Batman game Arkham Origins.

Troy Baker: Father of the Year

Troy Baker: Father of the Year

Joel is an older, ragged southerner. Booker is a veteran of the American Indian Wars working as a detective in the Northeast. They’re very different characters who inhabit very different worlds and yet Baker perfectly inhabits both of them, and through Baker, you the player inhabit Booker and Joel as they move through their respective worlds.

Yet Joel and Booker would be nothing without their respective wards, Ellie and Elizabeth. Both are young women with a unique secret, imprisoned by the constraints of dystopia. Ellie, played by Ashley Johnson, just might hold the key to humanity’s salvation in a post-apocalyptic United States. Elizabeth, played by Courtnee Draper, has super secrete theoretical physics powers, but is trapped in a tower on the floating Americana steampunk theocracy Columbia.

They’re both fully realized characters. They talk to you throughout the game, they wander off and are distracted by the world around them, they thank you, they hate you, they save you and you save them. In a medium that can all too often be reduced to shooting stuff, Elizabeth and Ellie put a very real, very human motivation behind pulling the trigger.

Elizabeth and Ellie are also anchors of realism in these games.

Ellie and chilling in gross mushroom America.

Ellie chilling in gross mushroom America.

The Last of Us takes place in a bleak future where America’s been reduced to a handful of military quarantine zones spread out amongst a vast wasteland of raiders and violence and disease. Oh, and mushroom monsters caused by a human-centric strain of cordyceps which has, for all intents and purposes, obliterated the world.

Bioshock Infinite stretches its imagination much further. Its setting, Columbia, is a city of dirigibles floating about the United States. It’s a haven of perverse Christian and American values and straight up old school racism that also happens to house one or two of the most brilliant minds in physics. Oh, and everybody has the ability to alter their genetic code so that they can shoot fire and electricity and crows from their wrists.

Both Columbia and the cordyceps-ridden U.S. are incredibly fleshed out worlds with dense histories and minute details that make them feel real, but it’s inhabitants like Ellie and Elizabeth that make the hearts of these fantastical worlds beat.

But Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us aren’t the same game, despite my lumping them together in nearly every respect thus far. Bioshock is a first person shooter. The Last of Us is third person. Bioshock takes place in the past. The Last of Us takes place in the future. This and that, so on and so forth. The most important distinction between Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us is that the former is an egg head and the latter wears its heart on its sleeve.

Elizabeth and the racist land of Columbia.

Elizabeth and the racist land of Columbia.

The Bioshock franchise has always been smart. The series’ first offering is just as much a first person shooter as it is an Ayn Rand novel. Bioshock Infinite is no exception. Where the underwater city of Rapture in the original Bioshock was a monument to the dangers of unchecked ambition fostered by philosophy and science, Columbia stands in stark contrast, a monument to unchecked authority fostered by blind patriotism and religious fanaticism.

But beyond its socio-political thesis Infinite soars to even greater academic heights. The conclusion of Bioshock Infinite bridges art and science, delves into the mathematical variables and equations of what a narrative is and questions the very construct of story.

It’s dense and dizzying and confusing and awesome.

On the flipside of that coin, The Last of Us asks us to question our morality and values and whether or not they represent the end-all, be-all spectrum of good and evil or the most convenient means of living safe and happy lives in the here and now.

Those questions aside, however, The Last of Us perhaps most memorably asks us to feel. It asks us to fight and kill for those feelings and at the end of it all the game, whether you agree or not, places a price on individual humanity and personal relationships and makes you pay it.

Bioshock Infinite wants you to play with your brain. The Last of Us wants you to play with your heart.

I’m a heart guy.

The Last of Us was my favorite game of 2013.

They wouldn't be making those stupid faces if they knew they were in the Pony Tricks Game of the Year.

They wouldn’t be making those stupid faces if they knew they were in the Pony Tricks Game of the Year.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t adore Bioshock Infinite. Or GTAV. Or Tomb Raider, or a handful of other games that came out this year. But sitting here in December it’s The Last of Us that continues to resonate with me over six months later.

2013 was a pretty badass year for games and that the medium was so effectively able to wield thought and emotion isn’t just impressive for individual games, it’s exciting for the industry as a whole. As my willpower begins to wear and I get closer and closer to shelling out money for a PS4 in 2014, it won’t be fancy graphics or apps or big name franchises that convince me to finally burn a hole in my wallet, it’ll be word of games that make you think and feel and that get people talking about more than just frame rates. Games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Are intellect or emotion important to you in gaming?

2. Did you prefer The Last of Us to Bioshock: Infinite, or vice versa? Did you prefer GTA V or another game over both?

3. Am I really going to have to get a PS4 next year?

 

Check out some of the other video game ramblings I partook in this year:

Arkham Origins

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite again

Dead Space 3

Grand Theft Auto V

Injustice: Gods Among Us

LEGO: Marvel Superheroes

The Last of Us

Tomb Raider

Deep Blue Sea and Feminism, or, Ladies are Cool Now

Full Disclosure: Mildest of spoilers for “The Last of Us” ahead.Fuller Disclosure: I’m a white guy.

When I was a kid Deep Blue Sea was the greatest film I had ever seen. What’s not to love about killer velociraptor sharks swimming around people places? But witty makos aside I distinctly remember being blown away by the fact that every female character in the main cast of the movie got totally obliterated.

I was a weird one.

Even at a young age I knew that women in movies weren’t supposed to get eaten (certainly not all of them at least), because women had their place in movies and it was rigidly particular. They were supposed to be sexily endangered and then rescued by a male costar. They were supposed to be “tough” and yet somehow simultaneously entirely nonthreatening. They were supposed to play an ancillary role in any climactic victory at the end of the movie. They were essentially very specific cardboard cutouts. But not in Deep Blue Sea!

She's a man-eater.

She’s a man-eater.

Just kidding.

Years later I found out that in test screenings of Deep Blue Sea Saffron Burrows’ character lived, but test audiences purportedly chanted “die bitch” and alas in the theatrical release die she did. Go democracy!

Point is, even as a ten year old whose only cinematic palette was animal horror I was excited by the prospect of not being able to fit lady scientists into prim and proper lady scientist boxes. Deep Blue Sea may have gone in the completely wrong direction with their female characters for the completely wrong reasons, but when that first lady scientist got eviscerated in a flooding chasm I realized I couldn’t just write off the remaining lady scientists because, for better or worse, they were actually being utilized for something other than the standard lady cutout. Sure, it was just a slightly different cutout with a shark bite taken out of it, but it was different.

Much like a super shark brain it was like parts of a story that had been long dormant and gray were now starting to light up and activate and over a decade later they’re firing up left and right. And finally headed in the right direction.

You guys, ladies are cool now.

It appears creative types across media are slowly but surely starting to realize that when you aren’t fully utilizing an entire half of your cast you aren’t fully utilizing your story. Creators are actively fleshing out their female characters and are producing far superior stories because of it. I’d call it the Cactus Effect, but I’ve never actually seen Hunger Games.

When I was a youngster the pink and yellow Power Rangers were a joke. They were dumb yo. And worst of all they were “girly” – so clearly made to check off a box on a demographic checklist that even as a five year old it was hard to ignore. Now on Saturday mornings kids can (could) see Ahsoka Tano, a young Jedi, kicking ass and taking names in The Clone Wars (RIP forever [I will never {ever} forgive you Disney]). Ahsoka isn’t a two-dimensional action figure commercial for girls. She’s a badass. Last time I checked Luke Skywalker never simultaneously decapitated four Boba Fetts. Just saying.

Movies are on their way too. Being a “strong female lead” used to eventually translate into being a “bitch” because god forbid anyone put more than two seconds of thought or creativity into what being a strong female means. Luckily that archetype is beginning to fall by the wayside in favor of women who are genuinely awesome in their own right, rather than just shapely conduits for faux testosterone.

AVIATORS.

AVIATORS.

Did you see Zero Dark Thirty? Jessica Chastain was absolutely incredible and her character was every bit as enthralling as Jeremy Renner’s in Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film. When the credits rolled on Zero Dark Thirty (or 0D30 as myself and the industry have taken to calling it) I wasn’t picking my jaw off the floor and saying “boy she sure is badass for a lady,” I was saying “she sure is a badass.”

The place women really seem to be moving into the spotlight over the last year, however, is video games. No I’m not referring to your run of the mill Halo’s and Call of Duty’s, but a staggering portion of the most critically acclaimed games over the last year owe their quality to fully-realized female characters.

Tomb Raider serves as a perfect example because looking at series’ protagonist Lara Croft’s chest throughout her various iterations serves as something of an infographic for the trajectory of heroines in what are considered male-dominated mediums over the last twenty years.

In Crofts most recent outing she was much less an Indian Jones themed stripper than she was a recent college graduate shooting vicious wolves with flaming arrows while ensnared in a godamn bear trap. And it was freaking awesome.

Of further interest is a developing theme in video games that sees the pairing of an older down on his luck man with a spry younger girl who possess some sort of inherently extraordinary trait; a humanity in a world gone to hell, an immunity to a devastating plague, an inexplicable ability to rip the boundaries of space time apart molecule from molecule.

TellTale Game’s adventure game adaptation of The Walking Dead was a favorite amongst Best of 2012 lists. Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are undoubtedly going to be going toe to toe for 2013 honors. All three games achieve an undeniable emotional connection leaps and bounds above your average headshot hunt due almost entirely to their phenomenal female leads; Clementine, Elizabeth and Ellie respectively.

Can you argue that all three games see a dominant male figure escorting a lady about a dangerous world like an incapable wounded dove? Sure, knock yourself out. But playing through The Last of Us feels exactly nothing like babysitting. In fact it feels more in line with passing the torch: the grizzled, aging Eastwood-type guiding a new archetype into prominence, preparing his inevitable replacement.

Girl + Bow + Arrow = Badass.

Girl + Bow + Arrow = Badass.

It’s an exciting idea that promises new stories and new experiences from new perspectives and I hope against hope that it continues.

Without giving away too much, there’s a sequence in The Last of Us in which the aforementioned Ellie guides her wounded male counterpart Joel through an area swarming with hostile raiders. Joel is in bad shape. I instinctively mash the “run damnit run” button to no effect as he limps and trips and stumbles along. But, outnumbered in the face of a relentless foe, Ellie is spectacular. She runs ahead of Joel darting in and out of her surroundings and sinking lead into hearts and bellies and brains alike, her trigger finger ever-faithful whilst confronting certain death.

As I move Joel forward, slowly but surely, I realize I care more about whether or not Ellie survives than whether or not Joel dies.

Joel is a phenomenal character. I feel for him on every level. I intently listen to everything he says because everything he says is worth hearing. Joel is a blast to play, but I’ve played him before, I’ve watched him before and I’ve read him before. He’s John McClane, he’s Aragorn, he’s Jack Bauer, he’s Rick Grimes, he’s everywhere.

But Ellie? That girl is something else.

(500) Days of Elizabeth, or, Unlocking the Characterization of Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite is a lot of things; a great game, a fun experience, an indigestible piece of mind candy that will leave your mind dentist hooking and clawing through all the nooks and crannies of your mind teeth until your gums are chum, etc.

It’s an American steampunk fairy tale.

Bawlin.

Bawlin.

You’re cast as Booker Dewitt, who, after what I assume was an early life as a librarian or Barnes & Noble clerk, served in the military at the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre. Fast-forward twenty-some years and Dewitt is a private eye with a steep gambling debt who finds himself in a row boat on a stormy night off the coast of Maine.

Dewitt proves to be a fascinating protagonist well worth investing in. He remains interesting even amongst the fascinating world of the sky-city Columbia. The bastard love child of a Norman Rockwell painting and the World’s Fair, Columbia is ultranationalist, Americana propaganda with a zip code. Which is just an expression. It doesn’t actually have a zip code. Because it’s in the sky.

But Bioshock Infinite isn’t just the tale of a stranger in a strange land with a strange name and a strange hand – Booker finds himself tasked with finding the mysterious young lady Elizabeth, a princess in a tower guarded by an imposing beast like no other.

Upon locating his subject, DeWitt soon discovers that Elizabeth has the ability to open tears, portals between dimensions, and bring objects from other dimensions into her own. Kind of like Portal 2. In fact, if you’ve played Portal 2, don’t even bother with Bioshock because they are essentially identical. Anyway, the point is Elizabeth is quite the powerhouse companion. Also she loves you. She really, really loves you. And she wants to be your best friend and make you happy for the rest of your shared life. Why else would she look at me the way she does with those bulbous blue irises and those uncanny-valley-defying facial expressions?

We were meant to be.

Book attack! Also, I love you.

Book attack! Also, I love you.

Once, Elizabeth was all “I bet you won’t get on that merry-go-round” – and then I did and she was all “damn I can’t believe you got on that merry-go-round, you’re so fresh and so clean.” Not with her voice, but with her eyes, those bulging sapphires that make me feel so alive for the very first time. I can’t deny them. I feel so alive.

This other time, I was at a vending machine buying an upgrade to my Murder of Crows power (a power that lets you unleash flesh eating crows at your enemies, and an upgrade that turns said eaten enemies into crow traps in order to perpetuate the glorious cycle of life a.k.a. the glorious cycle of murder ) and I didn’t have enough money and then Elizabeth was all like “here, I found this” and she gave me money! She could have given it to anyone, or even just kept it herself like a sane person, but she gave it to me so that I could buy more Murder of Crows crow murderers to murder with. Needless to say it was a sublime purchase.

I don’t know about you, but I appreciate a girl who appreciates value.

Another time I was trying to get into a door and there was a really impractical, ill-conceived looking lock on it and I couldn’t get in and then Elizabeth was all “I can do that” and she picked the lock for me and then we went inside and there was all kinds of money and ammo and upgrades and clothes. It was great. I mean, she used five of my lock picks, which don’t exactly grow on trees – but hey! Beggars can’t be choosers. And whether you are a beggar or a chooser Elizabeth will siphon the shit out of your lock picks. But she’s great. Blue irises. Meant to be. America.

In a more exciting instance I was killing some d-bags to death with an RPG, working out some anger over some lock picks I no longer had, and I ran out of RPGs to murder with, much like I’d run out of lock picks to lock pick with. Luckily at that point Elizabeth turned to me and said “here, take this.” Guess what it was. RPGs! And then I was all “Boy, that’s great but I sure wish you had more lock picks. I mean you literally used five of my lock picks. Five lock picks to get into a safe with $200. That’s cool. On an unrelated note, do you know what I can’t get for $200? Five lock picks. But that’s fine. Thanks for the RPGs I guess, but maybe next time don’t bother.”

I mean, five lock picks? Really? There’s no way that harlot isn’t taking a few off the top. It’s a door with a big dumb circular lock on it. Two lock picks at most. Five though? Yeah, okay Elizabeth. No, sure whatever, it’s fine Elizabeth. No, it’s fine. I’m over it, enjoy your lock picks. Really. I hope you enjoy your lock picks. Not that I even comprehend what you’re doing with them or why you need to hurt me like this. Remember the merry-go-round? Sometimes I wish I’d died on that merry-go-round, Elizabeth. I guess, what I’m saying is you make me wish I was dead. But really, I’m over it.

But really. Elizabeth’s great. She’s a great girl. We don’t see each other as much as we used to, but we’re still really really good friends. We’re just in different places right now, you know? I appreciate a girl who appreciates value. Elizabeth appreciates taking all of my godamn lock picks and leaving me out in the cold with nothing but two fully funded weapons of mass destruction, near unending health care and fuel for psychic monster powers.

If you see Elizabeth, tell her I said “hi” and tell her “you’re going to need a lot more than all those lock picks you took from me if you ever want to pick open the lock on my godamn heart” and I guess ask how her dad is doing.

Not that I give a shit.

Bioshocks, or, The Three B’s

Spoilers ahead for the first 20-30 minutes of Bioshock (which you really should have played by now) and Bioshock Infinite. Seriously though, pretty much a blow-by-blow.

Additionally, it should be noted that this isn’t a review. I’m maybe 3 hours through Bioshock Infinite. After I beat it I’m sure I’ll blab about it more.

bioshock

Ocean attack!

I got into games a little late, so Bioshock was the first game I ever bought on release day. I waited outside of GameStop with a friend, a few kids way too young to be playing Bioshock and their dead beat idiot dad. Twenty four hours later I’d beaten the game and I would kindly recount a slew of highlights from that experience, including developing a healthy sense of paranoia out of game, but they all are dwarfed in comparison to that first twenty minutes of gameplay.

Before I even played the game I was sucked in by the main menu. As the cursor moved between options flourishes of notes from a detuned piano proved the perfect setup for my oncoming journey into rapture.

I could almost hear the prose in my head as the game commenced. I enjoyed a smoke in the warm cabin of an airplane, staring at a picture of home, only for the plane to rupture and rumble and plummet into the cold sea not a mile away from the most inviting and sinister lighthouse in the ocean. I swam for dear life, clambering ashore to peer back at the fire and wreckage left of the plane.

And then I entered the lighthouse.

A massive statue of some totalitarian industrialist greeted me, bursting forth from a banner emblazoned with the words “No gods or kings. Only man.”

Somehow having convinced myself that going back was not an option I proceeded downstairs to discover a small submersible and, caution to the wind, I stepped inside. The prerecorded rant that accompanied my descent into the depths would bring a tear to Ayn Rand’s eye:  “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican, it belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow, it belongs to everyone.”

As the blinds came up from the window of my submersible a world of whales and squids and art deco seascapes unfurled in front of me: Rapture. And within minutes of docking my wonder would turn to horror while I beat the shit out of a deformed psycho with a wrench.

It’s a story of political extremism, a story of the far left coming around to the far right before devolving entirely into a jungle, and a story with a near lethal lack of sharks. I mean, c’mon. It’s in a godamn ocean. There should at least be fifty different sharks.

Now, some six years later and a little over two hours through my first play through of the second sequel, Bioshock Infinite, I’ve seen the flip side of that coin.

AMERICA!

America attack!

When I started my new game (through a menu accompanied by a 20’s Americana score) I nearly got chills when the narrative started on a dark night in the ocean, on a small rowboat cautiously close to a lighthouse. This time, however, I wasn’t so much stranded at the mysterious landmark as I was dropped off at it. I watched my companions desert me, rowing off into the night fog until they disappeared from sight entirely, then I stepped into the lighthouse because this time around I knew the drill.

But I wasn’t greeted by a titan of industry spewing bastardized objectivist slogans this time. A framed cross stitched doily that read “Of thy sins shall I wash thee” greeted me upon my entrance, followed by further religious pleasantries and propositions as I made my way up into the lighthouse and found myself arriving not at a submarine but at something of a steampunk drone.

Needless to say I was rocketed into the heavens, through the stormy clouds of the coast of Maine to the clear blue skies of Colombia.

But I didn’t find myself beating away ugly folk with old tools upon my exit into the new world. Instead I found myself in a church adorned with décor both religious and patriotic. I didn’t find myself baptized in the blood and brains of some gross guy in some damp and dark hallway. Instead I found myself baptized in water before a congregation of white-robed weirdoes in a damp and candle-lit chapel and spit out into a lavish garden, where citizens prayed to statues of the founding fathers.

I wasn’t in Rapture anymore.

Except I totally was. Bioshock Infinite’s immediate brilliance lies in the fact that it is a perfectly executed about face from the original Bioshock. Gone is the rabid individualism and self-industry that drown Rapture in psychosis, replaced instead with a dogmatic adherence to external authorities, to God and country and to “The Prophet.” And yet it feels so eerily similar because as I walk through the sunlit streets of Columbia listening to the rants against creativity and black people I understood that the city was stretched and tense and one step away from needing a good whack on the brain with a wrench, because Rapture and Columbia are the opposite sides of the same $60 coin.

Down to the main menu.

Every time you moved the cursor through the Bioshock menu the flutter of detuned piano followed, as if even the instrument itself couldn’t withstand the chaos of Rapture’s individuality gone wrong. You made your own music as you flicked through options. It was spontaneous and unpredictable and free of constraint.

As you file through menu options in  Bioshock Infinite, however, a fixed soundtrack plays a more traditional, straightforward melody in which you have no participation. It’s a city on the brink putting on airs. It’s nice and neat, but you can’t shake the feeling that the pianist is being held at gunpoint. It’s precise but you can’t shake the feeling that the melody adheres so stringently to notes on a page that any deviation from the authority of the music would result in a collapse of quarter notes and half rests.

Two sides of the same melodic coin.

The Bioshock franchise is the franchise of the moderate. In a world of objectivism it wants you to understand the importance of structure and authority and in a world of patriotic zealotry it wants you to be an individual.

The Bioshock franchise is one with things to say. It wants to tell you that politics don’t exist on a line, they exist in a circle that finds extremists on either side pushing further and further away from each other until they end up in the same spot.

Most importantly, however, the Irrational Game’s Bioshock franchise is one that laughs its ass of at putting as much analytical fodder between me the three B’s (boobs, blunts and bullets) as possible.

Here’s an idea Irrational – cut it the hell out.

I don’t play video games or read comics or listen to music or watch movies because I want to be exposed to new ideas and different viewpoints. Who am I, James Franco? I absorb entertainment for the three B’s jackass!

Boobs.

Blunts.

Bullets.

Get it through your head!

I don’t want your fresh takes on a stale genre. I don’t want your medium-exceeding, literary masterpiece of a game, and I especially don’t want a masterfully thought out, masterfully executed, well rounded experience with the potential to change the way I think about my fundamental personal beliefs.

I do want you to turn down the ambition knob a dial or twenty.

So cut it the hell out!

On an unrelated side note: never stop, Irrational. You’re doing God’s work. Or Ayn Rand’s work. Your call.