Shadows of Mordor: How The Nemesis System Can Change Gaming

I’ve talked a lot in the past about how videogames can make use of the conventions of gaming as a medium to tell a story and really connect with an audience in a different way than a film or a book can. Unlike those mediums, games are interactive and with this comes the possibility of diverting from the linear story progression that people have become acclimated to. It’s rare however, that games have truly taken advantage of this, with a few like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect playing with multiple branching story arcs based upon the decisions of the player. For the most port, the choices in these games are fairly straight forward –  choose A or B or C. But with the new Nemesis system introduced in Shadow of Mordor, it seems that there’s room in the future for an interactive story where both the decisions and the actual ACTIONS of the player impact the story.

For those who haven’t played Shadow of Mordor (it’s quite good, FYI), the game pits you on a quest of revenge across the fantastical realm of Middle Earth. Along the way, you’ll fight hordes upon hordes of bloodthirsty orcs hell bent on ending you. The gameplay is fun (think Arkham City with swords and magic), the map expansive and the story is simple but engaging enough. What sets Shadow of Mordor apart is the fact that every encounter with an enemy may come back to bite you. With the Nemesis system, the game remembers your interactions with enemies and the game will adjust accordingly. For example, if you throw an Orc into the fire and he lives to lick his wounds, he may come after you for revenge for being burned and disfigured. Each enemy is unique and your actions can allow them to rise and fall through the ranks and change how they behave and interact with each other. With every battle, you could be creating your own arch enemy.

It’s a great addition to the game, but I don’t think we’ve seen the full potential of this system quite yet. While you could alter the ranks of your enemies, you couldn’t shake up the system entirely and the main storyline would progress more or less the same. You couldn’t create the next Sauron. But think about what COULD happen in future Middle Earth games or even other games using a similar system. There’s incredible potential for this system to allow every action of the player to affect the story in a major way. I want a game where the first few moments of playing could entirely change the landscape of the game. Maybe in the next Middle Earth game, the Nemesis system gets pushed further. Imagine in the first enemy encounter, you take on a swarm of enemies and one survives to lick his wounds. Over the course of the game and through several more encounters, he continues to grow in opposition to your character with his skills and personality developing in response to your actions until it’s this once lowly grunt that is the end game boss you must overcome. There’s so much potential for this system to allow gamers to shape the story they are playing.

I’m definitely excited for the future and for what this could mean for gaming as a medium. Games are art.

Advertisements

Why Bioshock Infinite is Art

BIOSHOCK INFINITE

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the subversive and utterly mind bending shooter, Bioshock Infinite. This is the tale of a city in the sky where a furious and brutal civil war brews beneath the calm, cloud lined exterior. But is it art? Let’s find out. WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK INFINITE FOLLOW

WELCOME TO COLUMBIA

Bioshock Infinite takes revisionist history to a whole new level as they thrust you into the midst of colonial America. But it is an America very different to the one we know from the history books. You play Booker DeWitt, a  gruff gun for hire desperate to pay his debt. To do this, he must venture to the floating city of Columbia, a civilisation isolated from the ground bound America by its religious and fanatical leader, Zachary Comstock.  Booker is tasked with finding a girl named Elizabeth and together, they must try to escape Columbia as it is torn apart from the inside out by a war between the white upper class and the Vox Populi, a revolutionist civil rights movement so zealous that even Malcolm X might have taken pause. There are a hundred things I can talk about that make Bioshock Infinite great. The stunning, hauntingly beautiful setting. The multilayered, emotionally nuanced and morally ambiguous characters. The fast paced, frantic and exhilarating gameplay. But what I want to focus on is what makes the game stand out: The way Biotic Infinite makes full use of the medium of gaming to tell its story in a way that simply cannot be done through any other medium.

Constants and Variables

At several points in the game, an odd couple will appear, seemingly out of nowhere and will offer you a series of choices. Heads or tails – the bird or the cage. Bioshock Infinite is more than anything about choice. This is where the BIG spoilers start, so read ahead if you dare.

Elizabeth has the ability to open “tears”. These are portals into parallel universes – some, almost exactly the same while others radically different. For every choice one makes, there exists a different universe – an endless number of variations – an “infinite” number of universes. In each universe, there exists variables. For example, a man being dead in one or alive in another. But there also exists constants. Things that must happen and will always happen within each universe. Early in the game, the Luteces wonder whether Booker will row a boat. He doesn’t and they remark that “He doesn’t row”. After a pause, they realise that “He doesn’t row“. It’s a puzzling line but comes together once the parallel universes are revealed. In that instance, across all universes, Booker will never choose to row.

This is a commentary on gaming as a medium. Even in games, that give you the option of variables – choices you can make, things you can change each time you play through it – there will always be constants. More often than not, whatever choices you make will lead to the same outcome.The Luteces approach you again and present you with a choice – heads or tails. No matter which one you pick, the outcome will be the same. No matter which outcome you pick, the game will end in the same way.

On this same vein, they give you the opportunity to choose between two pendants: a bird which represents wild, unrestricted freedom and a cage which represents control, safety and security. It doesn’t make a difference which you choose and there’s no real impact on the story or the ending. There’s a reason for that. These represent the two conflicting ideologies presented by the extreme political leaders of Columbia: The all powerful, all controlling dictator, Zachary Comstock and the violent militia leader, Daisy Fitzroy. You clash horns with both sides as they vie for control of Columbia, cutting a bloody swathe through the populace as they do so.

As both groups commit seemingly try to outdo one another with the atrocities they commit, Booker, Elizabeth and the player themselves finally come to the realisation that it doesn’t matter which side is chosen: they’re both as and as the other. The dictatorship of Comstock was cruel, racist and made life a living hell for those who he deemed as unworthy of God’s grace. But Fitzroy’s revolution resulted in total anarchy, bringing out the worst in people as they revelled in the violence they were free to commit. The bird or the cage, it didn’t matter which one because both resulted in death and misery.

It’s an illusion of choice, an illusion of freedom. You control the characters, but really, you don’t. They will always end up in the same place, no matter how many times you play. The game asks the question of the player: Are we bound to our fate? Do choices matter in the long run if we all end up in the same place? It’s heavy stuff and more than a little morbid.

But after playing the game through,  one may realise that even if they’re bound to the same track – it’s still one hell of a ride.

Have you guys played Bioshock Infinite? What did you guys think? Are there any other games you want me to take a look at? Let me know in the comments below!

An Ode to Naughty Dog: Top 5 Moments

This September marks the 30th anniversary of the legendary studio, Naughty Dog. If you know even a little about gaming, you’ll know that Naughty Dog has been a pioneer in story driven, artistic and creative videogames over the past few decades.

Since the first game Naughty Dog released in 1989, the studio has grown and evolved to become one of the most beloved and successful gaming studios of all time. Fans will fondly remember the Crash Bandicoot and Jak series’ providing hundreds of hours of the best platform gaming available before Uncharted flipped the script and changed gaming forever. The Uncharted series raised the bar for video games by presenting players with a beautiful, exciting and character driven interactive cinematic experience that was both fun to play and fun to watch. But they didn’t just stop there as the release of The Last of Us in the final days of the Playstation 3 has proven to be one of the truly greatest games of that generation.

Now as they celebrate 30 years of innovation and excellence, let’s take a look at the Top 5 moments in a Naughty Dog game. These are moments that engaged players, that made them laugh, cry, scream or just made them feel something. Much like the best movie scenes, these are the five Naughty Dog moments that I believe will be remembered throughout gaming history.

Top 5 Naughty Dog Moments: 

5. The Helicopter (Uncharted 2)

Uncharted is best known for its cinematic moments and this sequence feels like something straight out of a blockbuster action movie. Just as Nathan Drake thinks he gets a moment to breathe, a helicopter appears and next thing you know, you’re jumping from building to building as gunfire chews up the rooftop beneath you and brawling with militia as an entire building collapse with you still inside. Top that, Indiana Jones.

4. The Giraffe Scene (The Last of Us)

I’ve already talked about this moment from the Last of Us in a previous blog, but this standout scene really highlights the range of emotions displayed in The Last of Us. It’s both touching and melancholy, telling us a lot about both characters as well as the world they live in. All with only a few lines of dialogue. This is economic, character driven storytelling at its finest.

3. A Rock and a Hard Place (Uncharted 2)

Uncharted 2 opens with Nathan Drake beaten to hell, suspended in a train carriage that is dangling precariously off the edge of a cliff. You have no idea what’s going on, all you know is that you’ve got to try and survive the next five minutes. It’s one of the most riveting openings of a game and keeps the player guessing in more ways than one.

2. Young Nathan Drake (Uncharted 3)

Uncharted 3 changes things up for a level by putting you in the shoes of Nathan Drake as a child. It was fascinating to see Drake as a down on his luck, smart mouthed street rat. It was a great insight into why Drake is the way he is and also into his relationship with his mentor, Sully. Not to mention the brilliant and exciting chase sequence that served as the climax of the level. Gaming doesn’t get much better than this.

1. The Ending (The Last of Us)

Simply put, The Last of Us has the best ending to a game I’ve ever seen. The final level is nail bitingly intense and the choices you are forced to make are morally and emotionally complex. There’s really no right answer to what happened at the end of the game, whether it was right or wrong. And that’s what makes it great. This was Naughty Dog’s best moment yet, but with Uncharted 4 on the horizon, you’d better believe they’re looking to top it.

Congratulations to Naughty Dog for thirty years of greatness and here’s to thirty more.

 

 

 

Why the Last of Us is Art: Ellie

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the 2013 smash hit, The Last of Us. Can this harrowing tale of post apocalyptic America be considered art?

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW

Article-II[1]

Last time, I picked apart why Joel was such a great protagonist. He was emotionally complex, morally ambiguous and fundamentally flawed, but still relatable, allowing us to connect with him as he learned and developed throughout the story. But while Joel was a great leading man, much of the success of The Last of Us stems from Ellie. In many ways, though we control Joel for much of our playing time, the game was more Ellie’s story than Joel’s and she has quickly become one of the most beloved characters in gaming.

Perhaps the main reason why Ellie resonated with the audience was the fact that she was so relatable on so many levels. People understood why she did things, people understood and sympathised with her actions and her struggles. Even though Ellie grew up in a world completely different to the world that the audience grew up in, the echoes of our world still linger with her. She’s not so far removed from our reality that she’s alien and it makes sense to us that this is the kind of girl that the post apocalyptic world of The Last of Us would produce. She’s tough, smart mouthed and quick witted but thankfully she manages to stray away from the “strong female character” trope that so many games and films abuse so gleefully. What I mean by this is a female character whose entire existence and entire personality revolves around the fact that she’s “strong”, the fact that she kicks ass and takes names (Resident Evil’s Alice being one of the main culprits) with no semblance of any real character traits beyond being a bad ass.

Ellie isn’t just a “strong female character”, she’s just a good character. While she may be tough as nails, she has a personality. She has a wry, decidedly goofy sense of humor (“I used to be addicted to soap … but I’m clean now”) and a love for reading. She’s brave, but has her vulnerabilities. She confesses that her greatest fear is being alone as everyone she has ever cared about has died or left her. She is fascinated with the relics of the old world such as comic books, magazines, videogames, toys and approaches these with a child-like wonder that seems at odds with her usual hardened exterior. What I’m getting at is that she’s not just a bad ass cardboard cut out like so many heroes, she is complicated, multifaceted character that actually feels like a person, complete with her own likes, dislikes, fears and aspirations.

One of my favorite scenes in this game or any perfectly sums up Ellie’s character and why she’s so appealing. After a rough couple of days, Ellie and Joel have almost reached their goal. But there seems to be an impending sense of dread, as if they both know that once they get there, things will not go as planned. You take control of Joel and watch as Ellie seems to withdraw into herself as you travel through the ruins. All of a sudden, she perks up and runs off, leaving you to dash after her. This leads to a scene that is both uplifting and melancholy, one of the most emotionally resonant sequences in gaming history. You’ll notice that this particular scene was the inspiration for the whole decor of this blog.

We’ll have more more on Ellie and The Las t of Us as well as other great games in the next few days!

Why the Last of Us is Art: The Protagonist

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the 2013 smash hit, The Last of Us. Can this harrowing tale of post apocalyptic America be considered art?

Let’s find out.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW.

The Protagonist

Joel, played by Troy Baker

For the majority of the game, the player takes control of Joel, voiced and motion captured by Troy Baker. When we first meet Joel during the prologue, he’s a loving, if somewhat distant single father who is struggling to make ends meet. After the infection strikes and the world falls apart, the story picks up twenty years later and the Joel we knew has disappeared almost completely. Left in his place is a grizzled, amoral shell of a man still unable to cope with the loss of his only child.  This brings us to our question of the day. Why is Joel a compelling character? What makes him worthy to stand out among the multitudes of brooding protagonists populating post apocalyptic fiction?

When looking at a character, I generally ask myself three simple questions:

1. Do they feel real?

As we guide Joel along his journey, we see that while he’s the protagonist, he is by no means a hero. When he correctly anticipates an ambush by bandits, he’s asked how he knew what would happen and replies simply: “I’ve been on both sides”. He’s a smuggler, a thief and a murderer; a man who stopped living decades ago and now only survives. Throughout the early stages of the game it becomes clear to the player that while Joel exists day by day, eating, sleeping and slaughtering infected by the droves (general post apocalyptic survivor chores) he has no semblance of purpose. The only meaningful connection he has is with another survivor, Tess. The nature of their relationship is never made clear and he insists on keeping even her at arms length.

For all intents and purposes, he’s a complete scumbag.

When I ask whether a character feels “real”, I don’t necessarily mean whether they feel as if they could exist in the real world, what I mean is whether I can understand and sympathize with why that character is the way they are given the world around them. Which is why Joel works so well as a protagonist and why that prologue depicting his loss and the effect it had on him was so important. He’s not perfect, he doesn’t make the right choices. To call him morally ambiguous would be an understatement. But through all that, we understand him. Everything he does, everything he is continues to be informed on some level by that loss. Because of this, everything he does makes sense. We understand immediately why Joel has little regard for authority and little regard for human life. We understand why Joel is estranged from his family and why he refuses to trust or connect with anyone. He isn’t perfect and that’s exactly why he feels so real.

2. Do they change?

The first glimmer of hope in his murky existence comes in the form a teenage girl named Ellie, who he has to shepherd across the country as she may hold the key to curing the infection. Initially, she’s nothing but cargo to him but over time, they begin to bond and the foundations of a tenuous father-daughter relationship begin to form. This relationship is the crux of his change as a character and because we understand him to be so fundamentally defined by loss, this change makes sense. You can probably see the running pattern here. The change isn’t abrupt or unfounded. They don’t suddenly love each other after a few days of travelling. Their relationship isn’t always onwards and upwards, it’s not a completely steady progression, just like a real developing relationship. They have their ups and downs and with every beat in their story, we understand why this is happening.

By the end of the story, Joel isn’t a completely new man. Hell, one would be hard pressed to even call him a good man by the end. He makes a decision that is fundamentally selfish, in many ways immoral and irresponsible. After finding out that in order develop the cure that would save humanity, Ellie would have to die, he must choose between the human race itself and her life. He chooses her and in doing so, perhaps doomed mankind. It’s a decision that many have debated, condemned and justified. But the ending is a matter for another blog. The point is, that by the end, he has changed, but this change is justified and founded on extensive, dynamic and logical development across several hours of game play. By the end of the game, he’s learned to live again. This brings us to the third and final question.

3. What is their purpose?

What I mean by their “purpose” is, what function are they supposed to fulfil to the audience? What message are they supposed to be sending or what reaction are they supposed to invoke? To answer my answer this question, you have to understand that  to me, The Last of Us is fundamentally a story about two things: Loss and hope.

As I’ve mentioned before, loss informs every aspect of Joel’s character. He exists in spite of loss and everything he does is because of it. He shows the audience how far a man can be pushed, how far morality can be bent due to tragedy. In many ways, Joel has allowed his loss to become a disease, turning him into just as much of a monster as those who were infected.

In this world, there is no hope. It’s reiterated many times that even if the characters do survive, death is just around the corner. Existence in this world is an endless cycle of murder and horror, with brief intervals of peace in between. But through the developing father-daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie, we see that even in this world, hope can exist. His words in the final scene of the game sum up both his message and one of the enduring messages of the game:

“I struggled for a long time with surviving. And you – no matter what. You keep finding something to fight for.”

This is what Joel did, at the expense of everyone else. Was he justified in doing what he did? Who knows? It’s not something as simple as right and wrong. For Joel, that wasn’t important. He clung onto that last shred of hope and fought for it above all else. To me, that’s what Joel is all about. The idea that even through all of the loss and pain, even if there is one single glimmer of hope, you can keep fighting.

Why the Last of Us is Art: The Prologue

The Last Of Us

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Before we begin our journey into the twisted and beautiful world of the Last of Us, let me make one thing clear. This isn’t a videogame review blog. I’m not going to be handing out stars and gushing about how great the graphics are or how smooth the controls are or how great the online is. I’m afraid I have to be far more pretentious than that. Yes, this is one of THOSE blogs. Sorry.

If I haven’t scared you off yet, what I aim to do is tell – and show – why videogames should be considered art.

What do I mean by “art”? Various scholars and lunatics (with these terms being anything but mutually exclusive) have been poking at this for years.  Which means that finding a definition is a thousand year old bag of snakes that would need a whole other blog to unravel. To save you the time (and the sanity), what I mean by “art” is a work of human expression that can instil an emotional or psychological effect on the perceiver in such a way that it challenges their own perception of themselves and the world around them.

Thomas Merton, a significantly smarter man than I managed to put it in significantly prettier words: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”.

In other words, I view “art” as something that makes you think and feel, not necessarily in that order.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at our game of the week, the Last of Us.

The Prologue

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The Last of Us was released in June 2013 for the Playstation 3. You take control of Joel, a grizzled survivor in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a fungal virus that turns them into mindless, flesh eating monsters. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Joel is forced to look after a teenage girl named Ellie as they travel through post apocalyptic America. Sounds familiar? Despite the new bells and whistles (they’re not zombies, they’re infected by “corduceps”, a real life fungus that infects ants), let’s be real, it’s essentially the set up for every zombie movie ever. But there’s a few things that set the Last of Us apart in a major way, which you’ll soon find out.

You start off the game not as Joel, but his daughter, Sarah. She wakes up to an empty house and you take the reigns, manoeuvring her around the eerily quiet halls as she tries to figure out where her father has gone. You’re given little information. You know just about as much as Sarah does, fed scraps of exposition through phone messages and television reports until your dad comes bursting into the house and murders your neighbours.

Sarah is driven away from her home by her father and you control her as she shifts from window to window, watching the horror unfold.  But even though you’re in control of her, it’s a completely on-rails experience. When you see your best friend’s house on fire, there’s nothing you can do. When you see the entire neighbourhood tear itself apart from the inside out, there’s nothing you can do. Even though you’re in control, really, you’re not. You’re just as helpless as Sarah is. This is the trick the Last of Us employs that sets it apart from another zombie flick like Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later. It’s a trick that all good games of this kind use.

When you play a story driven game like the Last of Us, you’re given a sense of agency that makes you truly part of the story. You’re not just watching characters running around on screen. By controlling the characters as they experience these horrors, on some level you are these characters. On some level, you feel what they feel. The best works of art take advantage of their medium and games are only just starting to explore the potential of this connection inherent to the art form. The Last of Us takes full advantage of this connection by the time the prologue draws to it’s shocking conclusion.

 Bummer.

What do you guys think about the prologue? Was it effective? Or is this just Walking Dead with mushrooms?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!