My Favorite GTA-Style Game to Date

Red Dead Redemption, the sequel to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, follows in the footsteps of the Grand Theft Auto games, presenting a large open world in which the player has a central storyline and countless side missions. Also in the vein of the GTA games, the player can wreak havoc throughout the world or play a (mostly) saintly character. I have quite a bit to say on the subject of RDR, but for this first piece I’ll stick mostly to a general review.

I think I need to start this off by saying I’ve never found the GTA games all that engaging or enjoyable. I know I’m in the minority, but for some reason they’ve always hit a bit of an uncanny valley. They’re not serious enough for me to empathize with in any meaningful way, but they’re not ridiculous enough for me to cut loose and enjoy the chaos. For the second option, I love the Saint’s Row series. For the first, I now have Red Dead Redemption.

RDR Screenshot 3The character of John Marsten isn’t anything new. He’s the crook-gone-straight that has been the central character in more stories than I can count. However, in this setting it works quite well. I have to give a lot of credit to Rob Wiethoff for the voice acting, which is damn near flawless. Some of the side conversations during group rides can be a little repetitive, but I can understand using repetition in a medium where so many tend to skip or ignore the supporting dialog, myself included.  Marsten is a protagonist that I managed to identify with almost immediately, which in itself speaks volumes about the quality of the narrative.

Anyway, Marsten has basically been conscripted by the government to hunt down members of his old gang. This is accomplished by some lovely coercion, namely kidnapping his wife and son. The story progresses through Marsten’s escapades, and thankfully we never see the stereotypical relapse into crime (at least in the story, though I’m sure many people play Marsten as a raging psychopath).

As can probably be detected from that last sentence, my Marsten was a just and honorable man. I actually got angry at the game when certain duels forced a killing, despite no penalty to my in-game honor. Whenever possible, I used non-lethal force, and helped as many random encounters as I found. This fit my narrative, though it was a bit shoe-horned in. I believe that in going straight, Marsten was doing everything possible to help people to offset all of his wrongs, even at the cost of slowing his return to his family. At this point I notice that I’m wandering out of review territory, so I’ll do my best to steer it back in.

The story missions are enjoyable, though rarely challenging. They’re fairly predictable, but for the most part they manage to be interesting. I never found myself wanting to skip exposition, which is quite a rarity. The side missions can be a little silly, but even then very few felt like a grind. The mini-games were enjoyable, and in particular I plan on trying out Liar’s Dice in person in the near future.

The controls can be a bit kludgy at times, something I think results from the desire to have Marsten always be slightly swaggering. This makes turning in place amazingly awkward, and creates the strange scenario where I feel more comfortable moving and navigating on a horse than on foot.

RDR Screenshot 1Speaking of horses, this game easily has the most beautiful wildlife I’ve ever seen in a game, and the horses truly are works of art. A later piece will go into this more depth, so I’ll leave it at that rather than stray further.

Outside of the slightly off controls, my only complaint is with some of the forced “choices.” Earlier I mentioned duels where disarming isn’t an option, which is annoying, but there are more things forced at the end that bother me. That was a hint, but to be clear:

Below here there are ending spoilers. If you’re reading this, you probably know already, but just to be safe.

I had read about John’s inevitable death, and I actually liked the idea. However, playing into my character, I wanted to do absolutely everything in the game BEFORE he died, so his son Jack could be entirely untainted. This was my John’s desire. Unfortunately, I’m also an achievement whore / completionist, so getting 100% completion was a requirement. One outfit cannot be claimed unless you clear all the US hideouts in 24 in-game hours, which seemed fine, until I realized that it wasn’t even an option until after John’s death. There is no reason for this. All of the hideouts are available (and completed) long before that final scene, so why hold out the possibility of unlocking it until after the death? This seriously bothered me, and was the first stage of a disconnect with the characters I had developed.

The second came with another duel with a forced resolution. Upon confronting Edgar Ross as Jack, I wanted to be able to disarm him in a duel and walk away the better man. Unfortunately, the only options were to either ignore him completely or kill him. Going back to the completionist aspect, I ended up killing him but felt quite unsatisfied by it, leading to the second stage of my disconnect with the characters.

It was a slightly disappointing ending for such a great game narrative. I understand some of the motivations, but it broke with the character I chose to play.

Ok, spoilers are done.

RDR Screenshot 2I’ve only just started playing the multiplayer, but the fact that I even started it says a lot. Most games I prefer to stick to solo play (fighters being the exception) unless I’m playing with people I know. However, I wasn’t ready to hang up my spurs just yet, so I dived in and was pleasantly surprised.

The Free Roam aspect of RDR’s multiplayer is fantastic. It’s a cross between the single player and an MMO: most of the single player features plus the addition of real-life people. There are the standard deathmatch type games as well, but the inclusion of the Free Roam helped me maintain some interest in the “multiplayer.” I say it that way that because 90% of the time I’ve spent in Free Roam has been solo, but that’s the way I tend to play MMO’s as well.

At the end of the day, I loved the game. It’s not perfect, and some parts didn’t set well in my gut, but damn, they succeeded in making one hell of a western. Maybe that unsettled feeling was even intentional.

Human Grief Made Eloquent

Recognized as one of the great pieces in C.S. Lewis’s repertoire, I felt sort of bad that I had never read A Grief Observed. It was actually assigned in my Thanatopsis (Philosophy of Death) class all those years ago, but I’m far less likely to read something when it’s assigned. Regardless, I finally read through it, and while I can see the comfort that those grieving derive from it, I find his arguments for turning back to religion severely lacking.

Lewis certainly has a way with words, and his comparison of grief to suspense is painfully apt. For someone currently going through a loss, having someone as eloquent as Lewis explain what it feels like must certainly be a comfort. I found myself, even many years removed from close grief, vividly remembering and feeling a kindred spirit. However, when he turns his eye to God, it feels vacuous.

Considering his reputation as the skeptic’s Christian, I was looking forward to seeing some interesting arguments or propositions put forward. I was unfortunately quite disappointed, as each argument he puts forth AGAINST God is only refuted with an appeal to emotion. He refers again and again to beating against God’s door, only to be turned away, and yet when he rediscovers his faith the only difference is his reaction to the lack of any meaning or answer. Strangely enough, I actually found my lack of faith reinforced by what is supposed to be a book known for bringing people back into the fold.

Lewis refers to his faith as a house of cards on many occasions, built up only to be knocked over by the slightest gust. I feel like that analogy is far more fitting for his lack of faith, since he immediately begins his retreat towards faith when he sinks into grief. That this is understandable makes it no less regrettable.

At only 89 pages, there isn’t much more to say. I’m glad to have read it, and may revisit it again in another time and another place, but only for the human comforts it contains.

Quality Essays, but No Voltaire

Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian And Other Essays On Religion And Related Subjects is a worthwhile read, even decades later.  However, as much as I enjoy Russell as both an author and a philosopher, much of his satirical humor falls flat, hence the title.

The titular essay feels much like a rehashing of the standard arguments against logical assertions of the existence of God, though to be fair in 1927 they may have been somewhat fresher.  In any case, it may be fairer to simply title it “Why I Am an Atheist.”  That said, there is little insight to be gained if the reader is even slightly versed in the topic.  Russell’s prose is concise and clear, but that alone may not be enough to warrant a reading.  This is sadly the case for many of the essays focused purely on religion or ethics.  To be clear, I think this book would be a fantastic starting point for someone just beginning to investigate religion or Russell as a person, but it just doesn’t offer much to someone already well-read on the topics.

To get the bad out of the way, Nice People is a beautiful example of failed satire.  It comes off far too condescending, not to the target of the satire, but to the reader.  Reading it reminds me of talking to that one guy that everyone knows, the one who thinks he’s hilarious but in reality is just awkward.  Thankfully, this is the only essay that falls to this lack of quality.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Fate of Thomas Paine was both interesting and educational.  Paine has always been someone who was in the periphery of my historical vision, but never the main focus.  This essay managed to raise and answer a good number of questions related to him.  The most interesting part was how applicable the situation from the late 1700’s was to Russell’s time, and in fact still is today.  I’m sure there are much better biographical resources regarding Paine, but for a brief 20 page essay, Russell did well at hitting the major points and piquing interest.

The best part of the book for me was something that wasn’t even written by Russell himself.  The editor has a well-researched appendix that focuses on the lawsuit that prevented Russell from teaching at the College of the City of New York.  The prose here is vitriolic and sarcastic at points, which unfortunately detracts from it, but after reading through the whole thing I can understand the source.  It both amazes and terrifies me that public opinion and the legal system could be subverted to rail against one man.  The scariest part about it is that there are far too many parallels to today’s society.

I’m glad I read this when I did: after a large chunk of fiction.  It fits well as a reentry to non-fiction, and should contrast nicely with the next book I plan to read, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed.

It’s All About the Fall

Limbo, an indie title released on Xbox Live Arcade, is all about the slow descent through an absolutely horrible place. It’s harsh, sometimes startling, vastly unsatisfying, and almost perfect.

Limbo Screenshot 1This game is minimal at its best. There is no exposition, no words (aside from one larger-than-life sign), no real soundtrack, no tutorials. Everything you need to know about the game you will learn through subtle environmental clues, assuming of course that you’re paying close attention. If you’re not, trial and error will be your guide. The system of dying and retrying is amazingly forgiving, unless of course you’re going for that one painful achievement, and it encourages exploration. Note that I don’t necessarily mean exploration of the world so much as exploration of what you can do in and with the world.

The plot, as it’s known, is simply a boy attempting to rescue his sister. He awakens in a forest and proceeds to navigate through that forest, to a mild industrial area, to some underground caverns, and finally to another industrial (though trippier) area. Each of these progression is fantastically subtle, to the point where you may not realize that you’re in a new environment immediately.

The camerawork in this game shines like so few other games. It’s out of the player’s control, which can make a game more frustrating than not, but here, everything is delivered perfectly. Each time the camera zooms in or out it is not only setting up the atmosphere, but it is giving the player the exact amount of information needed at that moment in time.

The gameplay is fairly basic, and I mean that in the best way possible. The platforming is tight, and the physics engine is perfect. There were a few puzzles that left me wondering for awhile, but they were all fair. You won’t find bear traps hidden behind a tree that can’t be seen, or bottomless pits that must be jumped in the dark. I never felt like a death was cheap. Frustrating sometimes, but never cheap.

All in all, I can’t recommend Limbo enough. The first playthrough will probably be somewhere around 5-6 hours, but once you know the game it can be done in under two, and even fairly close to one. I still have that one achievement hanging around for completing the game with less than five deaths, but this is one of the few games that I see myself coming back to from time to time even after it’s 200/200’d. It’s disturbing and uncomfortable, and yet somehow relaxing.

Limbo Screenshot 2Fair warning: This next paragraph contains ending spoilers.

To continue with my title, there’s an old saying regarding skydiving: “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.” In Limbo, the end really is that proverbial sudden stop. it’s the only point of the game that I take issue with, and even then it’s fairly minor. In fact, the only reason I even feel somewhat cheated by it is because I had a slightly more epic finale in mind, and (since it was my idea) I obviously prefer it.

When I flew through that final pane of glass in slow motion onto the floor of the forest, I fully expected to wake up and for the game to start again. What better manifestation of limbo than an endless cycle of searching and yearning and periodically failing only to be forced to keep trying? However, as time has gone on I’ve come to accept the ending as it was written. I’m glad they don’t answer more questions, or even give the player a hint as to what happens from there, but it’s still somewhat dissatisfying compared to the ending I had concocted in my imagination.

(an earlier draft of this review was posted at Giant Bomb)

Hello World

I regularly read about how one of the most important things a graduate student can do is write.  The topic matters less than the actual act of writing and becoming comfortable with the process.  To that end, this site will be a bit of a dumping ground for my thoughts and words, both short link blurbs and long form reviews and essays.

We’ll see how this goes.