SIM BULLY, or, No Man’s Sky

nomanssky

Bout to straight up CLOWN some fauna and/or flora.

No Man’s Sky,  developer Hello Games’ procedurally-generated space exploration game that concocts millions of planets (complete with similarly generated plant and animal life) using deterministic algorithms, doesn’t lend itself to quick assessment. I’ve played it for longer than it takes to beat any Call of Duty game and still sense that I’m on the prologue of my adventure to the center of the universe. Though it’s thus far been dinged for its repetitive gameplay features, at this point in my playthrough I maintain that No Man’s Sky is a sight to behold, one that I’m still having a blast playing.

But it’s not the potential to explore a fraction of a reported 18 quintillion procedurally-generated planets that keeps me coming back for more. It’s the fact that No Man’s Sky is the guiltless bully simulation the world has been waiting for.

No Man’s Sky doesn’t just let you explore 18 quintillion planets and take in the exotic flora and fauna. It lets you name them. And aside from the understandable inclusion of a language filter, which has only heightened my own creativity, the sky is the limit for naming these goofy, inexplicable organisms.

In real life, if I saw some sort of gorilla/dog/deer hexaped with devil horns and a baby face I’d be frowned upon for teasing it. In No Man’s Sky I don’t only get to think it looks like God’s greatest blunder, I get to straight up name it “God’s Greatest Blunder” for all eternity, ensuring that anyone else who ever runs across it in their travels knows that of all God’s blunders this flailing, misaligned doofus is numero uno.

No Man’s Sky hasn’t just let me explore the heavens, it’s challenged me to think of as many safe-for-work synonyms for “phallic” as humanly possible. It’s taught me not to name some short, fat thing “The Very Dumbest Ottoman” unless I’m absolutely sure, because something shorter, fatter and dumber might come along the very next second.

I don’t think I’m playing No Man’s Sky right. I’ve reloaded the game because I submitted an animal’s name with a typo more often than I’ve died. The gameplay mechanic I’ve used most frequently is probably the keyboard and the gameplay mechanic I’ve used the second most frequently is the Playstation 4’s ability to take screenshots of my playthrough so that I can remember which heinous names go with which genetic disaster.

And the best part? All these dummies are fake! No harm no fowl! Bully them to your heart’s content! I know I have. Just like playing Call of Duty doesn’t make you a real soldier, giving horrendously cruel names to make believe creatures doesn’t make you a real bully.

My first impression of No Man’s Sky is that it is fun for the whole family. Just not for the reasons it was intended to be.

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Call of Duty: Advaned Warfighter, or, Hey Look! It’s Kevin Spacey

CODAW!

CODAW!

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Call of Duty is football. It’s a regularly scheduled bout between two rotating colors with just enough flexibility in its variables to differ from installment to installment. But there’s a reason people watch football. It’s familiar and somehow, someway it manages to evoke excitement in spite of that familiarity. You know what you’re getting with a Call of Duty game and depending on your taste that can be great or horrendous.

I don’t watch football. But man do I look forward to shooting my way through a six hour campaign one and a half times every year. Yeah, yeah, “Call of Duty sucks, it’s the same thing every year.” Well so are you so’s football ya nerd.

That being said, I wasn’t exactly sold on this year’s Call of Duty installment when it was announced, primarily because Call of Duty: Advanced Warfighter is being unapologetically promoted as Call of Duty: Kevin Spacey.

Cashing in on the actor’s recent critical praise from the Netflix series House of Cards, Advanced Warfighter somehow managed to get Kevin Spacey, and neither the promotional materials not the game itself will ever let you forget it. In pre-mission briefings, rather than showing you a snapshot of Kevin Spacey, you’ll get an entire collage of snapshots of Kevin Spacey, as if the game is bragging over having the rights to use the actor’s likeness.

Rollo Tomasi.

Rollo Tomasi.

It seemed really, really dumb. It seemed gimmicky. It seemed like a desperate attempt to feign relevance by plastering a recognizable face over tired gameplay. Like I said, I wasn’t exactly sold on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. But as I do every year I quickly found an excuse to get it: I just got a PS4 and I wanted something to look pretty on it.

Graphically and conceptually Advanced Warfighter is not for this generation of gaming what Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was for the last. The cutscenes look nice but the graphics fall short under even minor scrutiny. The newly introduced exosuits let you hop around like a bunny, which is fun, but the set pieces and action movie tropes I hopped through were never exactly jaw-dropping.

For all intents and purposes Advanced Warfighter is just another football game. Maybe an arena football game, but even that would be a stretch. That’s not to say it was bad or that I didn’t like it, but this year’s Call of Duty is essentially more of the same.

Except this year’s Call of Duty has Kevin Spacey.

It seemed dumb. It seemed so, so dumb. I don’t even watch House of Cards. But hot damn, two-time Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey provides a compelling and thought-provoking performance in a video game in which I used magnet gloves to ride on the top of a bus like it was a skateboard while chasing a terrorist with an unironic Mohawk.

In the words of Kevin Spacey’s Christopher Walken impression, “Wow, that’s crazy.”

Some spoilers for the first act of Advanced Warfighter follow.

Spacey plays Jonathan Irons, the owner of Atlas, a private military that, by 2060 or so, has become the largest standing military force on the planet. Countries across the globe call upon Atlas to prop up (get it?) their governments and provide infrastructure, which is all well and good until Irons and Atlas go rogue.

Pretty by the numbers, yeah? I mean I put a spoiler warning above but I imagine few even considered Spacey wasn’t going to wind up the villain in this installment. But his performance in this Advanced Warfighter highlights a deficiency in all of the series’ previous entries: villainy.

The villain in the last game was, like, your dad’s friend or whatever? And before that it was a Russian guy? And there was another Russian guy? And an older guy? And Fidel Castro? And another other Russian guy?

Call of Duty villains suck.

Until now.

Not only does Kevin Spacey bring an undeniable gravitas to Irons, Irons is an inherently interesting villain.

Spacey Vader

Spacey Vader

Jonathan Irons is a villain who is legitimately relatable. He wants to get stuff done, to make a better world, and he sees the government as standing in the way of progress, going so far as to deem the very concept of the nation outdated.

It’s telling that while the protagonists in Advaced Warfighter obviously oppose Irons’ villainous plot, no one ever provides a counterpoint to his underlying argument. At no point does Irons have a moment of grand realization in which he grows to understand that his premise was flawed and misguided. Because it isn’t.

Jonathan Irons is a man infuriated by bureaucratic gridlock, and in the midst of fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns who among us can’t relate to that? But Irons isn’t just an infuriated citizen, he’s an infuriated citizen who commands an expansive private military which he utilizes to live out a power trip fantasy many of us have probably had while reading one news story or another.

Jonathan Irons is a man disgusted by the likes of Frank Underwood.

I had a jolly old time shooting his minions to death.

I suspect every football game has some little flourish that makes it distinctive and exciting for ball fans. Maybe someone kicks a three-pointer or grand slams into the touchdown. Call of Duty is no different. Last year there was a dog. The year before that there were divergent endings. One of them had an airplane level. Another one had Russian roulette. One had Jack Bauer. And who could forget the one that leaned in to our collective cultural phobia of a second 9/11?

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfighter is still a football game, but Kevin Spacey is one hell of a quarterback.

Liberal Arts, or, Shadow of Mordor: A Quest for Enlightenment

I went to college, so I know all about culture. I love culture. Culture is great. Culture is the best. I’m well rounded. I know about things.

That’s why I found Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a new video game set in the world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so endlessly fascinating. Because culture.

Specifically, orc culture.

The orcs are an ugly, ugly people. But Shadow of Mordor taught me about their intricate, lavish culture.

Mordor is basically a cultural melting pot.

Mordor is basically a cultural melting pot.

I watched orcs engage in power struggles to rise through the ranks of Sauron’s army. I watched some go berserk at the sight of fire and others run away crying at the sight of bees. I learned their myriad motivations, be they social insecurity, cannibalism or just straight-up, old-school blatant racism.

It can be easy to stereotype orcs, to hide them from the cleansing rains of personhood under a singular umbrella of collective ugliness. But Shadow of Mordor refuses to paint this regal, ugly, ugly people with a single brush stroke, instead showing orcs and their culture for the gross canvas of mud brown and renal-failure yellow it is.

And it lets you just murder the hell out of it. There are orcs everywhere, orcs of all different shapes and sizes with all kinds of names and personalities, and you just kill the shit out of all of them and they die dead, each extinguished life a small subtraction from the aggregate sum of a breathing heritage.

Shadow of Mordor unapologetically lifts it’s gameplay from the Assassins Creed and Arkham series, as such moving through Mordor will feel pretty familiar to some. But in Shadow of Mordor you don’t watch henchmen from above, perched on a gargoyle, and you don’t hide from Templars amongst hordes of nuns or on discrete benches. In Shadow of Mordor all of the henchmen and Templars and gargoyles and nuns and benches are orcs. And they all have names. And you just murder their butts real good.

Its basically Gorillas in the Mist up in here.

Its basically Gorillas in the Mist up in this mess.

In fact, orc culture in Shadow of Mordor is so diverse and varied that if you play Shadow of Mordor my arch nemesis, Mozfel Half-Breed Lover, probably wouldn’t even exist in your play through. Because orcs and their culture are so expansive and distinct you’ll wind up duking it out with some other orc who loves some other gross thing. And then you’ll chop his ugly head off, just like I chopped off Mozfel’s ugly head and watched it spew thick, black, subhuman blood all over his horrified constituents, whose heads I also gave a good chopping too.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor probably should have just been called Mordor: Mordor of Mordor. You aren’t traversing Middle-Earth, you won’t be spelunking in Moria or taking in the beauty of Rivendell. You’ll be exclusively in Mordor, whose bleak and barren lands only serve to further illuminate the vivid pantheon of its indigenous, ugly people, whose throats you just slit into oblivion like nobody’s business.

The orcs in Shadow of Mordor are such a hearty people that sometimes they will even survive your violent onslaughts and overcome their cuts and bruises and handicaps, triumphing over adversity to confront you once again. And then you can just straight up feed them to a living wild animal. And if they come back again you can straight up burn them alive cause screw ’em.

I did a lot of stuff over the course of my time with Shadow of Mordor, but chief amongst them I explored and appreciated the many facets of a unique and vibrant culture, treating its practitioners with dignity and respect. Because I have been to college, so I know all about culture.