Horizon: Zero Dawn Has a Secretly Upbeat Message About Human Destiny

I’ve been playing a decent amount of the new game Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s been justly praised on the basis of its very capable following of the open-world blueprint of games like Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption, and Far Cry. But the world has also gotten a lot of attention – the game imagines a distant future where civilization has basically collapsed, but there are many technological holdovers from a long-forgotten past.

That includes lots of huge robots which, I’m sure for Reasons, resemble dinosaurs and sabretooth tigers, and which make up the (really, really fun to blow up) main enemies of the game. But it also includes a lot of mundane objects, from ceramic mugs to corkscrews to a Bluetooth headset (more or less) that’s central to the game’s plot and mechanics. The humans interacting with this stuff have no idea how it works – the entire setting hinges on the dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic.

The game’s approach to time and human collective memory, though, are what I think really set it apart. Post-apocalyptic stories are a dime a dozen, but that’s not what this is, despite the sense that there’s been a technological catastrophe. In Mad Max or Fallout, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the lost past, and a struggle to survive in a harsh present. They seem to reinforce, in that way, the inherent value of the real world we live in now – they suggest that we should treasure what we have, because look how horrible things would be if we lost it.

But things aren’t that horrible at all in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn (these dual titles are really unwieldy, execs). There are wars and conflicts, but humans now live in fairly well-structured, semi-primitive tribes and proto-nations, including farming and hunting societies. They’re not 21st Century America, but they’re not some sad vestige of a glorious past. They’re just different, functioning societies.

And they don’t pine for any past, either. The builders of the technology they see all around them are more mysterious ‘others’ than direct forebears, closer to ancestral gods than actual people. There’s no powerful sense that protagonist Aloy and her people have ‘lost’ anything – this ecosystem of strange and dangerous robots, and occasional technological scraps, is simply the world they live in, and make their living from.

This sense a much different message about human fate than the standard postapocalypse narrative, and considering that we’re likely headed for something catastrophic pretty soon, it’s a bit of a light in the darkness. Humanity (according, ahem, to this video game) is robust enough to survive up and down cycles – while we may recede from the progress and horror of the 20th century, there will still be an essential humanity to us, and we will continue. We will make hunting armor out of car reflectors, and maybe that’ll be enough to propel us to the next good patch.

Centaur, an Excellently Bizarre Pinball Table

One of the (very few) great cultural institutions we have here in the Tampa Bay area is the Replay Amusement Museum, a collection of vintage pinball and arcade machines in Tarpon Springs. Pinball is an incredibly fun, invigorating, challenging thing, and a pretty great mental exercise – imagine, there was a time when hitting a ball against spring-loaded bumpers could be an interactive metaphor for everything from piloting a spaceship to rafting a river to exploring a haunted house.

The tables are also often stunning capsules of the creative and cultural environment of their time. They’re collections of art, sound, and language, in their way not unlike a film. There are lots of tables that are weird in various ways, but one of the weirdest has to be the 1981 table Centaur, which has a direct line to the bizarre science fiction and horror that dominated the 1970s and 1980s – and, more generally, to the grim undertones of that era.Centaur

The “story” of the Centaur table – and yes, pinball tables tell stories, sometimes elaborate ones – has the player facing off against a strange creature that’s, apparently, half orc and half motorcycle. The illustrations on the backboard and play surface are all black and white, and the costuming of the characters seems inspired by a mix of Conan/Frank Frazetta and The Road Warrior (which came out the same year, but I’m not sure whether the table came after). The artist, Paul Faris, was then just at the start of an illustrious but undersung career in video game art, which included work on Double Dragon.

The table is lit by almost entirely red bumpers and lights, giving the whole thing a powerful heavy metal vibe.

But what really makes this a pinball game worthy of treatment in a blog dedicated to weird culture is the game’s intimidating, bleak audio. The narration comes from a robotic, granulated voice drenched in reverb (provided by a dedicated sound chip – this was 1981, when this stuff took real work). And the music today sounds like abstract noise, looping and grimy and guttural. On the table at Replay, at least, the bass was so powerful I could feel it through my hands as they rested on the cabinet.

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Fallout 4 is Fundamentally Broken, Thanks to One Huge Writing Mistake.

Note: This was originally written back in December, when this game was actually new. I managed to not actually publish it at the time. Whoops.

 

In the past two years or so, I’ve devoted a lot of energy to studying and practicing plot mechanics. They were a problem for me as a writer for a long time, but I’m finally really getting into the swing of things. It’s with that recently-polished insight that I approached the new Fallout 4, and I’ve found that, as a mechanism for delivering a coherent experience centered around character and plot, it has some serious problems.

I really, really wanted to like Fallout 4. So badly, in fact that I bought a Playstation 4 so I could play it. But now, after having the game for less than a month, and playing for around 40 hours (at least), I feel no urge to continue. In fact, I think continuing to play it would be bad for me – it leaves me feeling empty and drained.

On one level, I shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve been playing the Fallout games for nearly 20 years (Jesus . . .), and was pretty disappointed with Fallout 3 – it felt lifeless and boring compared to the first two games. And while Fallout 4 shares a lot of problems with Fallout 3 – a combat system that’s no fun, inventory management that’s just a boring hassle, enemies that are boringly samey, and a setting so visually boring it could be used to prep patients for oral surgery – It’s that sense of lifelessness, and even pointlessness, that feels the most familiar.

In other words, the writing sucks.

This is, of course, the same thing a lot of us said about Fallout 3 – and it was mostly true then, too. When Bethesda got the rights to Fallout from Black Isle in the early 2000s, there was a lot of skepticism – the tone of the first two Fallouts was just too different from Bethesda’s heavy Elder Scrolls fantasy RPGs. And for the record, I really loved the writing, including plotting and characters, on Skyrim – that was a game that gave you purpose, and led you through a series of small and large, but always meaningful, goals. The tone was right for the experience (also, Skyrim looks amazing. Fallout 4 looks like someone spilled brown paint).

But Fallout has always been a more human, more mature, and more subtle story than The Elder Scrolls – at its best, both a satire of the worst parts of our own culture, and a meditation on the experience of total loss. But Bethesda never truly picked up those threads from the original Fallout games, with Fallout 3 really feeling like a rote exercise, especially in the humor department – Bethesda don’t seem to get satire.

That continues in Fallout 4, while the story seems even more lackluster (though my memories of Fallout 3 are themselves getting mercifully scant at this point). Moment to moment, the story totally fails to give any meaning to your actions. Critics basing reviews off the first five or ten hours of gameplay seem to have been baited into thinking the exact opposite . . . but before I go there, let me just tell you about a minor quest I just finished up.

While wandering the wasteland, I found the corpse of a soldier, with records suggesting I should find, and maybe help, his fellow squadmates. I traced a handful of distress signals, and ultimately found the sole survivor of the expedition, holed up in a bugout bunker. He offered to let me have any of the junk in his bunker.

And that was it.

There was no final challenge. There was no twist – for example, it didn’t turn out that the survivor had double-crossed his squadmates. There was, in fact, very little payoff at all to give meaning to my play experience (and, just for the record, the ‘play experience’ of this quest, the actual stuff I did, was extremely unremarkable). I didn’t learn much, except that this world is dangerous. I wasn’t clear why these people were conducting a dangerous operation, or why exactly (the most interesting thread) they had to destroy some of their most valuable munitions.

That’s a pretty representative taste of the lost opportunities that abound in the stories here.

The characters are no better, residing mostly in the world of cliché or total nondescription – a guy who wants to help people, a reporter who wants to get the scoop, a super mutant who wants to be . . . stronger, I guess? The most interesting person in Fallout 4 isn’t a person, but a cyborg detective, whose possession of an actual personality almost seems like a satire of how boring all the humans are.

(In fairness, there’s another character, a mercenary, who is interesting. But you literally kill him before you find out he was interesting. You basically get to spend fifteen minutes with him).

But back to that opening sequence. The story of Fallout 4 is set up as an effort to humanize a central character who, in the previous games, was a bit of a blank slate. The setup (and I think this is the same for male and female protagonists, but I might be wrong) has the main character tricked into a state of suspended animation, from which he wakes up just briefly and witnesses his son being kidnapped. When you wake up, you immediately set out to find your son, moving relentlessly towards this crystal-clear goal.

Oh wait, NO YOU DON’T.

This is the thing that makes Fallout 4 seem totally pointless. In the previous games, the first hours were spent discovering the world, understanding your place in it, and answering questions about your own identity. Killing stuff and talking to people was part of that process, giving it all some clear forward momentum.

But in Fallout 4 you know exactly who you are, and exactly what you should be doing – but the larger game doesn’t want you to focus too much on the thing the story has so clearly set up as the most important thing for your character.

For the first thirty hours of the game, while I spent a good bit of effort advancing the main storyline, I was also cajoled by the game into spending a LOT of time on a series of fetch-and-kill missions connected to building a kind of municipal defense network, and a bunch of other peripheral missions that had no apparent connection to finding my son.

What father, in a real or fantasy world, would dawdle around with any of this bullshit after he found out that his son (spoiler alert) had been kidnapped by some kind of evil cyborg gang? When it so constantly encourages you to pursue side-quests that distract from the key goal, the game makes your character feel meaningless and without motivation. If it were true to its own premise, 85% of the content in Fallout 4 would have to be trashed and rewritten, because you’d just be doing the seven or eight quests that led directly to your key goal. But then it wouldn’t be ‘epic,’ I guess.

All of this makes me really suspicious that the whole “kidnapped kid” angle was added at the last minute, or was some sort of political compromise. Bethesda is good at setting up open-ended, open world experiences, where the player feels, in an odd way, motivated to do nothing – at least, nothing specific. In addition to playing the first two Fallouts, I played Daggerfall and Morrowind on release, too – and loved those games on their own terms. (Oblivion is another story).

So, now I’m weighing whether to keep or sell Fallout 4. It’s a boring game. Frankly, the most fun part of it is the new crafting system, which means I have – in another bit of meaning-destroying absurdity the game thrusts on you – probably spent more time improving my guns than trying to rescue a boy that is the only living testament to my beloved dead wife.

Who doesn’t get mentioned one time after the opening sequence, by the way.

Best Android Diablo Clone? Dungeon Quest.

I’m pretty philosophically opposed to Diablo and Torchlight-style games, for most of the reasons Action Button told me. But sometimes we all need to turn our brains off, right?  And since I do most of my gaming these days on my Nexus 7 (I’ve been a casual gamer for years.  I’m only just beginning to accept it), I’m always on the lookout for pleasantly frictionless dungeon crawlers and light RPGs.  They’re surprisingly hard to find.

Dungeon Hunter is overserious, grindy, and frankly pretty graphically inappropriate for the platform.  Worst of all, it takes the psychologically exploitative nature of the Diablo model and attaches it to real money.  Bit Dungeon is fantastic, but very limited in scale.  Ravensword 2 is pretty great for plane rides (and its accessible scale is what games like Oblivion SHOULD be), but it’s still not quite ‘casual’.

Dungeon Quest Android Game Screenshot

Dungeon Quest, though, hits the mindless-pleasure sweet spot.  It’s easy to play in bite-sized chunks and has charming, lightweight design – but it also has TONS of loot, character depth, and great controls.  It’s also still under very active development, so who knows where they’re going next.

Highly recommended.

3 Days Left to Get in on Weird H.P. Lovecraft Western Dungeon Crawler Kickstarter

Tentacle Miniatures

Shadows of Brimstone Tentacles

Who doesn’t need more tentacles? You have about 3 more days to get in on Shadows of Brimstone, a miniatures boardgame by Flying Frog Games that is currently in the middle of a wildly successful Kickstarter.  It’s a sophisticated modern dungeon crawling board game with a West meets Horror theme, and tons of what promise to be great-looking miniatures.  The “Outlaw” package for $150 (which I helped myself to as a little consolation when my Grandma died) includes two different versions of the core game (which you can share or use together), and a pretty big mess of addons, including all kinds of squishy, rotting characters and game goodies.

I played a ton of this sort of dungeon crawler board game when I was a kid, including Talisman, Warhammer Quest, and Hero Quest. I only recently got back into the genre, playing a few rounds of Descent with my brothers a few weeks ago when I was at home, and it’s come a long way, baby.  The rules are a lot more sophisticated, and obviously the themes have taken a step forward from pure sword n’ sorcery. When I was about 14, I cut up a bunch of my Hero Quest miniatures and turned them into the kind of weird mutants this game includes by default, so you can imagine my excitement.

At this point, I haven’t painted a miniature since I was 19 (which is probably for the best), but now that I’m too old to give a damn about being cool, I guess it’s time to take another crack at it.  My little palms are simply sweating to paint those tentacles.