I finished Outer Wilds last week. Finally.
As with its similarly named cousin, The Outer Worlds, I walked into this experience under the cloud of effusive praise. Polygon named Outer Wilds Game of the Year 2019 and added it to their Game of the Decade list (#25). Which… makes sense, I guess. It would be kind of awkward for a GOTY to not be good enough for the decade.
But if Outer Wilds is Game of the Year 2019, then 2019 must not have been a good year for games.
To be fair, there are a number of praise-worthy elements to Outer Wilds. The premise of a time-loop mystery is fairly unique (Majora’s Mask notwithstanding). The lack of any form of combat is similarly rare. The game does a really nice job of simply letting you jet around the solar system right from the get-go. The soundtrack is great and the visuals and setpieces can be breathtaking. In truth, there is a lot to like here. The fact all this novelty and ambition came from an indie dev with a dozen people is the commendable bow on top.
It’s just that… the game isn’t for me. Or possibly you.
Everything was great for about two-thirds of the experience. Once you get the controls down, you can wake up from the beginning of the time loop and be orbiting any planet in the solar system within minutes. The impending supernova did grate on my nerves a few times, as it always seemed to occur when I was 90% done exploring a specific location, requiring me to make a return trip to finish up and then suiciding so as not to limit exploration time somewhere else.
As with all videogames though, things escalated from there. Exploration started requiring some gnarly platforming, where failure often resulted in survival… but lost minutes, of which you only ever have 22. So it may as well have been death. Then the game required gnarly platforming AND specific timing. It wasn’t enough to discover where you needed to go for the next clue, you also had to be there at a specific timeframe.
Up to this point, I had been doing everything on my own. But when I encountered a particularly annoying timing puzzle I could not solve after repeated attempts, I was ready to abandon the game. As is often the case, when I broke down and looked up the solution, it was something that should have been obvious. But immediately following that one sequence were many more that would not have been obvious (to me) at all. Still later sequences require you to sit on your hands for 7+ minutes before getting the opportunity to finish navigating a hallway that becomes impossible to complete within 30 seconds of the window of opportunity opening. Who is this fun for?
And that’s the $25 question. Or in my case, $17.80. And the answer is: Not me.
This should not have been much of a surprise. I don’t actually like Adventure/Puzzle games. Or more specifically, I abhor games in which you can come to a hard stopping point and flounder around not even knowing what it is the game is asking you to do. Can’t beat a boss? Gain more levels, or memorize its attacks, or try a different strategy. Can’t get into a locked room? Well, unless there are some movable statues right outside or a monster with the key, then good luck. There could be any number of reasons why the door is locked, up to and including the fact you aren’t supposed to go through the door. And when the solution ends up being “attach a probe to it and then wait FIFTEEN MINUTES for the entire structure to be sucked into a black hole and ejected out into space and then go through a different opening altogether,” I’m not exactly happy at the designer’s cleverness.
Nevertheless, I am glad I played Outer Wilds, if for no other reason than to see for myself as to whether it is a transformative experience. Again: not for me. I can see how it could be for some people though. Maybe. I’m not really sure, actually, because I find it difficult to imagine the sort of person who is capable of working through the entire game without a guide and also receptive to its underlying message. The guides I used didn’t ruin any of the details, but the experience itself gets a bit disjointed when you’re Alt-Tabbing every few minutes.
But if you are a fan of timed, Adventure platforming roguelikes though, you are in for a treat.
Genre: Sci-Fi, Near Future, Drama
Steins;Gate is a gripping, emotional drama that also reminds me of why I hate time travel as a narrative mechanic so much. The anime follows the eccentric teenage “mad scientist” Rintaro Okabe and his two friends/Lab Members as they spend their days fighting the “Organization” and otherwise goofing around with gadgets. After going to a conference on Time Travel, Okabe encounters a woman stabbed and lying in a pool of blood. Shaken, he texts his friend about the incident while the Phone Microwave gadget was running… and his text arrives 5 days in the past, changing the future.
What is brilliant about this anime is exactly what I dislike about the conceptual narrative. The first half of the anime explores the nature and limitations of the “D-Mail” system – the ability to send a phone text to someone in the past – and each successful D-Mail permanently changes the world and resets everyone’s memories to match it… other than Okabe, who remembers everything. Later on, the anime darkens considerably once Okabe realizes the butterfly effects of all these changes and the seemingly inevitable future it portends. And that is the rub. Each time the world is changed, everything that happened previously ceases to be. Okabe (and you) remember that other world, but it’s irrelevant in a practical sense, erasing huge swaths of continuity and character development.
Make no mistake, Steins;Gate is a superb, shocking, draining anime and by far the best version of Time Travel I have encountered in fiction. I still hate Time Travel as a narrative mechanic though, and my attachment to the characters of Steins;Gate and their sacrifices (which are erased) only deepens my antipathy for it.
But if you have no issue with Time Travel? You should see this anime yesterday.
Genre: High school romantic comedy
In a nutshell, Toradora is a high school romantic comedy with enough dramatic elements and interesting characters to set it apart from what otherwise amounts to another entry in the busiest anime genre of all time. The show follows Ryuji, a high schooler who looks like a delinquent but is actually fairly sensitive and domestic, and his new neighbor Taiga, the short “palm-top tiger” with an even shorter temper. Once the two of them realize that they have crushes on the other’s best friend, they set differences aside while trying to set the other up with their crush. As you might expect, misadventures and misunderstandings abound.
Overall, I really enjoyed Toradora to the tune of crushing all 25 episodes across two days. As mentioned, there is enough drama and emotional scenes to set the anime apart from its peers, if the quirky characters did not do so already. And most importantly? There is actually catharsis by the end; this is no harem comedy in which nothing is resolved by the final credits.
So, hey, how about that. Leave the country for just two weeks and look what happens.
Blizzard Q2 2014 Investor Call
The big news, of course, is the fact that WoW has dropped 800k subs and is down to 6.8 million from Q1. MMO-Champion has a rather interesting interactive graph on the linked page, but let’s go ahead and take a screenshot for posterity:
Honestly, it is hard to add anything to that; the graph really speaks for itself. I guess it is interesting to note that we are now well below the numbers of vanilla WoW at this point. It is also interesting to note that the number of subscribers WoW lost in the last few months is larger than the total reported subs for The Elder Scrolls Online. Or Wildstar + EVE. So anytime someone happens to discount WoW as a fluke and/or “not representative of the genre as a whole,” just remember that this is a fluke on scale with the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.
There are bigger games, of course, like League of Legends. There still ain’t any bigger MMOs. And let’s face it: there isn’t likely to ever be any.
Back to that investor call, and the unintentionally hilarious corporate doublespeak:
Starting off with World of Warcraft. The franchise remains healthy with revenues up year-over-year. This is due in part to ongoing interest in Warlords of Draenor presales, which now exceed 1.5 million, and the character boost, which suggests strong support for the expansion by the community.
Yeah, sure, I can see it that way, Mike Morhaime. Someone who purchases a(n additional) character boost is likely a person preparing to use said boosted character in the next expansion. At the same time, is a boosted character not also a vote of no confidence of all the content that it was boosted past? Shit, the expansion is not out for another three months, and this is a report of player behavior from earlier in the year anyway. I’m not one of those guys who cry over planned obsolescence, but c’mon man, this is a sword with two edges. Be careful where you pick it up.
In looking over the rest of the call transcript, most of it had to do with Destiny and Call of Duty questions. Hearthstone was a surprise darling, but we sort of knew that already.
Warloads of Draenor
I pretty much agree with the prevailing blogging opinion that the Warlords trailer is excellent on a technical level and somewhat of a horrible trainwreck on grokkable level. Are we supposed to know who these orcs are? It might be a little racist, but I can barely tell any of them apart. And then you get the confused sympathy going on, which results in you thinking the final boss of the expansion is actually a good guy. I mean, we just saw him kill a demon and everything! To the average person watching this thing, they aren’t going to know that the final scene is meant to imply the “good guys” will soon be invading an alternate timeline in which they don’t exist, only to be pushed back into their own world again and beaten silly by 10 or 25 kleptomaniacs in silly costumes.
And when I put it like that, I still almost feel bad for them.
Then I remember that alternate timelines and time travel in general is literally the worst narrative gimmick in literature (and all mediums, really), possibly tied with “it was all a dream.” It is always total bullshit because nobody ever treats it seriously, least of all the authors themselves. Bioshock Infinite, anyone? Warlords is all just another Metzen Horde masturbation fantasy that plumbs the shockingly shallow depths of the Warcraft RTS plot in search of remaining nuggets (or crumbs thereof) which can be squeezed and bled before the swan song of an Emerald Dream expansion.
In my attempt at researching the possibility that the Warlords narrative could be saved by Naaru somehow, I stumbled upon this blog post which does a good job at asserting the fact that we might be battling high lieutenants of the Burning Legion by the end. Up to and including Sargeras. I like the research supporting that position, but again, it all highlights for me the reason why time travel is stupid everywhere. Because now there is an infinite number Sargerases, and Titans, and McGuffins such that the likelihood of the “original” world existing at all is vanishingly small. Maybe the Bronze Dragonflight are supposed to keep all that shit on lockdown, but all it takes is a single “he/she went insane” and suddenly they are attacking every reality.
…which is sort of how the Burning Legion are described. Hmm.
Nah. The writers over there aren’t that clever.
As you might imagine, the following post contains many spoilers. Read at your own peril.
I did want to get two things out of the way first (and help create some extra spoiler insulation). The first is to reiterate, as I did in my review, that I very much enjoyed certain aspects of Bioshock Infinite. The characterizations were quite good; Elizabeth in particular was fantastic. I also enjoyed the art style and the music. The combat was particularly weak in my opinion (and others), but not terrible enough to preclude suggesting the game to other people, at least at a lower price-point.
Secondly, there is almost nothing in this world more personally maddening than when people suggest a given narrative is good (or the best ever) simply because it appears complicated. Why is convoluted nonsense confused for depth? I had to turn off this Kotaku audio spoiler discussion because the hosts actually suggested that not thinking about (for example) time travel paradoxes makes time travel plots better. Well… yeah. That works because you are taking away the bullshit plot as it actually exists and then substituting your own, better version in its place. And odds are that your own version doesn’t make any more goddamn sense, cobbled together as it is with your vague, unexamined good feelings rather than the jumbled pieces presented by the original writers.
I am not asking for a happy ending. I am not asking for Saturday Morning cartoon simplicity. Hell, I am even completely fine with leaving things up for interpretation; Inception’s ending was perfect, for example. What I am not fine with is when vague nonsense is elevated to absurd heights. If Bioshock Infinite’s plot is actually any good, then surely it can stand up to some peanut gallery criticism. Right? Right.
And by all means, if I am talking out of my ass on any of the below points, or you want to provide a different perspective, call me out in the comments below.
Redefinition of what Alternate Universes mean.
First off, this may seem like a minor quibble, but I think a lot of the confusion and suggested paradoxes stem from the fact that Bioshock Infinite is inventing its own version of multiverse/time travel theory. Levine is basically saying “I’m going to take this hackneyed, impossible-to-do-right concept and solve it with three words: ‘Constants and variables.'” What about the Grandfather Paradox? “Constants and variables.” What about all the universes in which Comstock is a good guy, or those in which Booker doesn’t sell Anna? “Constants and variables.” Why couldn’t Elizabeth just stage an intervention to keep Booker from drinking and gambling? CONSTANTS AND VARIABLES.
I’m sorry, presenting a multiverse theory in which there are “millions and millions” of other Comstocks and yet certain outcomes are arbitrarily 100% set in stone is simply lazy storytelling. I mean, it is not even inconsistent for there to be universes in which Booker never sold Anna! It almost feels like Levine crafted the “constants” based entirely on being able to railroad the player in that one room with the baby. You can still have an impetus to stop Comstock in any of the universes in which he turns into a bad guy, even if it is not ALL universes. Or, hell, add some moral ambiguity to the story by suggesting eliminating the bad Comstocks is “worth” killing all the good ones too.
“Constants and Variables” might be a novel “solution” to the problems of alternative universe storytelling, but only because no other writer thought anyone would actually buy into it. This feels like deus ex machina ^ ∞.
“There are a million million other Comstocks”
This was my literal reaction to Elizabeth’s line about why the game wasn’t technically over after killing Comstock:
Seriously, so what if there are a million million other ones? There are a million million other bad things in alternate universes too – not to mention real life in 1912 – but we don’t seem to be solving those. Was what Comstock did in the Columbia period so bad that killing him at the point in the timeline which we did, was not good enough? Let’s drown him a million million times in that same fountain, as god only knows our conveniently omnipotent Elizabeth can time travel us there; there isn’t even the Constants and Variables bullshit to get in our way. Elizabeth and Booker quite literally have all the time in the world.
When did the drowning occur?
Speaking of drowning, when did Booker get drowned by the Elizabethes? Before or after the baptism? If before, why did that not kill off all Bookers/Annas/Elizabeths, e.g. make the after-credits scene impossible? If it occurred after the baptism, as the extra scene seems to convey, why is it so important for Booker to come to the “smothering” decision? Why is the player’s Booker smothered, instead of watching a new Comstock get smothered? Narrative convenience?
At first, I thought the answer was easy. In the game proper, it seems as though Booker shares the memories of any universe he has been in. For example, after bringing in the weapons, Booker has memories of being a hero of the Vox. In this way, by traveling to the past (time travel and alternate universes, this is so deep u guyz) and presumably merging with the post-Baptism-yet-pre-Comstock Booker, we can have a scenario in which a not-yet-Comstock Booker realizes what is going to happen and accept the need for his own drowning.
Which is… a pretty shitty moral scenario, if you think about it. More on that in a moment.
Of course, if the above is actually the case, then how is it possible for Booker and Comstock to exist in the same universe in the first place? Why doesn’t Booker have Comstock’s memories the moment he wakes up in the row boat, or when getting into Columbia, or when physically drowning Comstock in the baptismal fountain (ooo, foreshadowing) in the game proper?
To be honest, I might have missed the explanation for why Booker wasn’t a drooling, nosebleeding basketcase like the other dead-now-alive soldiers. Or why those soldiers were having such a hard time when, at best, they were “remembering” alternate universes in which they were dead. If the dead soldiers were now alive due to us changing things in the past, what does that really mean for the great swaths of population we killed across Columbia even in a no-Comstock scenario?
Negating all events that were experienced
Let us pretend for a moment that the ending makes perfect sense, there are no plot holes, and everything is wrapped up with a neat little bow. Hell, let’s pretend the ending is even happy, despite the fact that Booker is still a murdering, gambling, union-busting alcoholic single father with enough debt to legitimately consider selling his own daughter to the first person who opens a checkbook. And let’s further assume that he retained the memories of all that he accomplished in the game, perhaps giving him an impetus to try and set everything right instead of dropping baby Anna off in a basket at the closest orphanage.
In this best case scenario, Bioshock Infinite is a game in which all your actions are voided. Everything you struggled to accomplish is erased. None of it happened. Every moral choice you made, every time you refrained from stealing from cash registers, every interracial kindness you demonstrated never matters because those people/scenarios never exist. It boils down to a “it was all a dream” scenario, which is the most pernicious storytelling mechanic in the history of narrative.
If I had no other problems with the story, this alone would be enough to throw my hands up in disgust. Do you really feel like a game in which you endeavor to negate everything that happens is deep and meaningful? You can accomplish all the game has set you out to accomplish by simply not playing. As prophesied by WOPR in 1983: “the only winning move is not to play [Bioshock Infinite].”
Moral of the story?
Finally, let me kind of wrap all these various ingredients up into one complete shit sandwich. What exactly is the message being conveyed here in Bioshock Infinite? What is the theme, the moral of the story?
At the beginning, I almost felt like Booker was trying to make up for his sins, to seek forgiveness and redemption, to put things right. But what is Booker’s actual crime that he is repenting? To stop a person he never turned out to be from entrapping the person he is into a crime a third version must now stop? Booker choosing to be drowned seems a noble sacrifice until you realize what exactly he is undoing: choices he never made. Or, even worse, stopping a man (Comstock) he had no choice into becoming. There is never any “good Comstock” because apparently being bad is a constant. Fate. Predestination.
What is the message here about personal responsibility, free will, and choice? You have none because Constants and Variables. And suddenly, infinite universes means you are implicitly responsible to consequences that you never chose and never happened in your own universe. Do you remember when you donated to charity instead of setting a baby on fire? Well, you should feel real bad anyway because the not-you baby-arsonist is running amok and it’s up to you to stop yourself like you already did by not setting the baby on fire in the first place. GUYZ, DEEPEST PLOT EVAR.
Even worse, apparently Booker is the one on the hook for what the Lutece twins are ultimately responsible for. Who invented the Tear machine? Who gave it to Comstock? Why isn’t this game about the Lutece twins stopping themselves from transdimensional kidnapping, extortion, and/or human trafficking?
Ah, right. “Constants and variables.” And when the Lutece twins invent the Tear machine anyway and give it to the next megalomaniac – a real shortage of those in the early 1900s, let me tell you – it will once again be somebody else’s alternate-reality problem.
Fake Edit: After “playing” through the ending sequence again, I believe the drowning question can be put to bed. Elizabeth(es) specifically say:
Preacher Witting: Booker DeWitt, are you ready to be born again?
Booker: What is this? Why are we back here?
Elizabeth: This isn’t the same place, Booker.
Booker: Of course it is, I remember – wait. You’re not… you’re not… who are you?
Elizabeth: You chose to walk away. But in other oceans you didn’t. You took the baptism. And you were born again as a different man.
Elizabeth: It all has to end. To never have started. Not just in this world. But in all of ours.
Booker: Smother him in the crib.
Elizabeth Esemble: Smother… smother… smother..
Elizabeth: Before the choice is made. Before you are reborn.
Preacher Witting: And what name shall you take my son?
Elizabeth: He’s Zachary Comstock. He’s Booker DeWitt.
Booker: No… I’m both.
In other words, it was not Comstock that was smothered in the crib, it was Booker before he made the choice to be baptized or refuse. Meaning, both Booker and Comstock are dead. Meaning, the after-credits scene is either a vision of an afterlife, or a cheap plot hole to make you feel better while masquerading as deep storytelling.
Please, tell me I’m wrong about any of this. Tell me there is a legitimate reason people are praising this plot, as if it holds even the slightest of candles to the original Bioshock. Am I missing something? Perhaps, you know, the Tear into an alternate universe in which Bioshock Infinite’s plot is any good?