Tag: video games

Soma

Soma
Frictional Games

I like sci-fi horror and the initial videos of Soma looked really cool. But while I was excited to play the game, I was also wary. Frictional games are hit-or-miss with me. I liked Penumbra: Overture and Penumbra: Black Plague had some great moments, but Penumbra: Requiem was a disappointment and Amnesia struck me as overwritten and silly rather than scary. So when I started Soma I was worried. I didn’t like the voice of the main character, Simon Jarrett, at first and the set-up of the game seemed like a mash-up between the other Frictional games and BioShock. Yet when I talked with my first robot who didn’t know he was a robot, I realized that this game had more going on. As Soma progresses, it provides a story that is surprising and thought-provoking. And, remarkably, it all fits together logically. So many games sacrifice logic to make game mechanics work. For instance, in Soma you get to hear the final moments of dead characters. In many games, you get this information through journals which beg the question: how did the character write this if they were dying? In Soma, the moment is recorded by a black box that everyone has embedded in their brains. Why your character, Simon, is able to access these black boxes is likewise made clear. While not all elements of the story are spelled out for you, you can piece them together through reflection.

The story is the real strength to Soma. It’s what draws you in after a slow start and what addicts you and keeps you wanting to play even though the horrific environment makes your stomach churn. Yet as the game goes on, another element comes to the fore: Simon’s relationship with Catherine. Catherine is Simon’s guide through the world of Soma. And instead of being a simple computer construct or a manipulative puppet master, Catherine is a three-dimensional person (metaphorically speaking) full of flaws. As Simon and Catherine encounter horrors together a bond forms between them . This is not some hasty romance, but a friendship between two people alone and afraid. They support each other, but also yell at each other and get into arguments. This very human relationship at the center of the game both adds depth to what you experience and underscores the themes the game is exploring.

Basically, the game questions what makes us human. Is our consciousness part of our human bodies or can it survive outside our flesh? And if so, at what cost? And if we entrust more and more of our safety to machines, what will it mean if those machines don’t understand the humanity they are trying to preserve? I have read some reviews that have panned these questions and felt they were too overdone. But I liked them and found their placement in the game to fit really well with what was going on. And I appreciate a game that attempts to make me think as well as feel.

The other main criticism I have seen of Soma concerns the monsters in the game. Some found them disappointing or too repetitive in how you overcome them. While many of them can be dealt with by simply moving slowly and quietly, I thought the various monsters were delightfully creepy. They all had different behaviors that made them feel unique even if, in effect, all I was doing was crawling around to avoid them. While the monsters created some pulse-pounding moments, the creeping dread that permeates the rest of game is the main horror in Soma. This dread is created by the environment, especially the sounds. Yet it is largely conveyed through the story itself, the tale of what happened and what people had do do, what you, as Simon, have to do, and the realization that the only glimmer of hope is a hazy reflection of humanity. It’s a dark game, but dark in an existential way. How many video games can make that claim?

Overall, Soma won me over and drew me down into its depths. I love horror sci-fi, but I’ve found many horror sci-fi games either frustrating to play (Alien: Isolation) or full of incredibly obtuse puzzles and cringingly overwritten characters (Stasis). Soma is a well-thought-out work that provides you with an immersive experience that that gives you plenty to feel as well as think about.

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originally posted February 24, 2016

The Last Guardian

I bought a Playstation 2 because of Ico. It proved to be a good choice; I absolutely loved that game. It reminded me of dreams I used to have in which I wandered through strange architecture. And the relationship that develops between Ico and Yorda really captured my emotions. I’d never had a game that made me feel responsible for someone. So of course I was excited about Shadow of the Colossus. And while I missed the camaraderie of Ico, especially with the vast emptiness that greets you in SOTC, the concept was daring, the gameplay was more exciting, and the story itself was deeper. In order to win the game, you, who had just faced insurmountable odds sixteen times in a row, had to just give up.

So yeah, I was really looking forward to The Last Guardian.

And I was really looking forward to it for years. And years. So long that I kind of lost enthusiasm.

But then it was finally released and I waited to hear the praise. And basically there were crickets. Sure, I read a few reviews from the normal sites, but the excitement that was generated by SOTC just wasn’t there. Still, I wanted to play the game. So, now, I finally have.

Yes, the game is beautiful. Yes, it’s dreamlike and vast. But it seems less thought through than the other games. For instance, your character, a young boy (as in Ico), gets knocked unconscious twice in a row right in the beginning of the game and again a third time not long after. And this recurs over and over and over, with you, or both you and Trico (the creature you befriend), falling and getting knocked unconscious. It seems like that could have been edited a bit. Overall, the game is more in the mold of Ico than SOTC. While you do hold onto a beast’s back, climb vines, and leap pillars that remind you of the ones in SOTC, the story is about a trapped young boy who must set another individual free so that the two of them can solve a series of obstacle puzzles to escape a huge and decaying castle. Basically, it’s Ico with Agro from SOTC merged with Yorda and blown up to the size of a house. And so the game, while being beautiful, feels a bit like a step backward.

The (completely avoidable) frustrations of the game also add to this feeling. The first annoying aspect to the game is the camera. First, it seems set too close to the main character. There’s no way to reset this or vary it as far as I could tell, and so your view of the wonderful environment is hampered by the close perspective. Then of course there’s the camera’s movement. It tries to fly around you as you move and sometimes gets caught in certain places, or crosses the axis of the action abruptly, causing you to have to switch the direction you’re moving the joystick in. It also suddenly decides to move on its own, usually when you are carefully trying to line up a jump. Really, I haven’t experienced such an annoying camera since the early days of Tomb Raider. When people say that The Last Guardian feels more like a PS2 game than a PS4 one, I think this is one of the things they mean.

Then there are the controls. They weren’t too bad a first. But problems cropped up soon and got worse in the last half of the game, as if all the bugs weren’t worked out. Most of the issue, besides being unable to tell what ledges were actually grabbable, is the redundancy of the controls. For instance, there’s a push button, which is only useful  a handful of times in the game, but when you walk into something, you automatically start pushing. Why make it automatic and also have a button? Also, when you push and something doesn’t move, you end up pushing yourself backwards and falling over. Which means that any time you walk into something too hard, you fall over. I get that the character is a kid, but this got pretty annoying. It happened when I tried to jump, too. If I hit something that I couldn’t grab, I’d fall over. Yet the biggest issue I had was with getting on and off Trico. This may be partly my own inadequacies, but it’s also, again, the button choice. The jump button and the hold button are the same button, the triangle. So this means I would often try to jump off Trico and would instead hop a bit and then cling back on to him. It got pretty annoying, especially in situations with a time constraint. And in fact, I never found a graceful way to dismount Trico.

Still, there is a palpable sense of partnership that develops between you and the huge creature that has come to trust you. While I loved Ico, Yorda was not much more than a key and you had to look out for her much more than she helped you. Well, in TLG this is almost reversed. Trico is much more powerful than your character is and much of the game involves removing obstacles so he can do what he needs to do. You play support. And I have a feeling that this may be what caused some people to get so frustrated with Trico. I’ve read reviews where people said they spent long periods of time trying to get Trico to do what they wanted. While I found him to be stubborn on occasion, I didn’t really have this problem. Maybe because I thought of me supporting him and not the other way around. I just didn’t try to tell him what to do too much. Mostly I chose to pet him. I am not sure that this is what made the difference, but it’s entirely possible. Given that SOTC shows that all your work was probably folly and that to succeed you had to give up, I wouldn’t be surprised if the intention in this game was to make you more of a passenger than the driving force of the narrative. And again, the relationship that develops between you and Trico is touching and makes for some tender and sad moments later in the game. This magic of partnership, which Ico had, is also present here. Though the frustration of the game mechanics often cut the feelings short.

In the end, the game feels like an echo. Trico is amazingly rendered and that care to detail makes him utterly charming. The environment is incredibly designed and sumptuous in its detail. Yet the continual little frustrations in the game undercut its charms. So it feels like a game that reminds me of the wonder and emotion of Ico, that harkens to the scale and excitement of SOTC, but never takes off and becomes it’s own thing. My sense of wonder kept being robbed by the limitations of the camera and the muddiness of the controls. I still like the game, though. And now that I’ve played it I can relax a bit and just take things in. If only the camera were better…

The games ends with nostalgia, which seems apropos. The narrator of the game is the boy you are playing and at the end we finally see him grown up. A group of children have found the mirror that you use in the game and so you tell them the story. “I once had an adventure…” Which is exactly how The Last Guardian works for me, reminding me of the time I first played Ico. “I was once sacrificed to an evil queen and had to escape her crumbling castle, leading a sickly young woman by the hand…” In the end, I’m glad to have these memories.