How Abzû taps into the Beautifully Alien Nature of Life Beneath the Waves

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Chris

No trip to the beach is complete without the stench of seaweed squatting in your nose holes. That mass of slowly dying of plant-life might typify the whole experience but it’s not a particularly beautiful sight, is it? It’s smelly, it’s slimy, and it’s usually littered with flies treating themselves to a stinky feast.

It’s hardly the kind of thing to inspire gushing romantic prose like rambling forests or snow-capped mountains, but then, seaweed isn’t particularly designed to be on the beach. In it’s natural habitat it stands tall and dances in the currents, swaying left to right in a floaty hypnotic jig. Beneath the sea its beauty is obvious but then take it to the surface and it all drains away. It doesn’t belong on the land, just like how we wouldn’t look too great if we spent a few days living beneath the sea.

All forms of entertainment have touched on our incompatibility with the ocean. From classic works of literature like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, to low-budget Hollywood dumpster-fires like 2006’s Adrift, many have drawn inspiration from our immortal struggle against really big bodies of water. Naturally, video games have tried to get in on that action, too, and like everyone else they’ve mostly focused on the ocean’s dangers.

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In Bioshock, for example, the sea is a constant, looming anxiety, always pressing in and desperately searching for a way to get its icy mitts all over you. In Subnautica the sea is a thing to be conquered, you build and improve until you carve out a small niche for yourself away from all the peril. Abzû (brought to us by Giant Squid) is a little different. Rather than shine a light on the dangers it focuses on the beauty of marine life and revels in the colour and spectacle of it all.

The ocean is a vastly unexplored space. It’s an uncharted alien world that’s right on our doorstep. Abzû channels that idea and delivers a gorgeous sunken ecosystem that’s a delight to explore, whilst constantly reminding you that you probably shouldn’t be there.

The game begins with a mysterious diver floating peacefully on the surface. The pale-blue sky mirrors the calm seas in a serene start that acts as a familiar jumping off point for the player. There’s recognisable clouds and the same old sky we’re used to; it’s the world we know.

It might seem like they start you off here just to force a diving tutorial on the player and, while that’s an important element, I think there’s some interesting narrative implications, too. The surface acts as a barrier. A doorway between our familiar surface world and the alien one beneath the waves. Starting the player above it highlights that contrast. It puts the onus on them to step through that threshold and dive into the adventure.

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One of the key figures in Abzû’s creation was the former art director of Journey and Flower, Matt Nava. While Abzû shares similarities with Nava’s other work, it sets itself apart in a few important ways. There’s a focus on exploration and engaging with your environment that’s just not as present in his other projects. Despite sharing much of Journey’s DNA it still feels different and expects the player to hang around to do a bit sightseeing rather than forging on to the next story beat. Thankfully, it also shares Journey’s penchant for gorgeous worlds that are lovely to spend time in.

The sheer amount of life swimming around on screen is staggering. The quantity and variety of the fish is almost hypnotic, with schools by the hundreds forming dense clusters that dissolve and reform like flocks of playful sparrows. They range from the tiny anchovies to the looming sperm whales but what they all have in common is the sense of detached apathy with which they regard the player. For the most part, you don’t exist to these creatures. They’re perfectly happy to swim around gobbling each other up to ever bother with a weird, limb-having tourist like you.

You can grab onto the side of the larger fish and ride them about like mighty sea steeds but even then they’re not particularly bothered by your worrisome boundary issues. It turns Abzû into a very lonely game despite all the life swimming around you. It often feels like you’re a ghost, invisibly roaming in the world of the living. It all contributes to a lingering sense of isolation that leaves you feeling removed from everything that’s going on. It heightens the notion that you don’t quite belong in this alien space and tickles your curiosity to delve even further.

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With such a beautiful and bizarre world to explore, it’s a shame that navigating through it all can be a test of patience. It’s ‘strongly-recommended’ that you play the game with a controller and even then it puts up a determined fight. I haven’t dared to brave it with a mouse and keyboard yet as I can only imagine it’ll feel like operating a particularly heavy submersible that’s been hooked up to a broken grand piano. The camera struggles to follow the rapid twists and turns a player can make which often leaves traversal feeling slow, sluggish, and ultimately frustrating.

A few rhythmic taps of a button sends you shooting off in a straight line for a limited amount of time, drawing comparisons to the limited flight of Journey’s scarf-touting protagonist. What precedes this joyous burst of speed is an awkward lining up period, where you hope and prey that you got your calculations right or you’ll be overshooting your target and blasting towards a whale’s backside like some sort of Jonah-seeking missile. Speed in Abzû always seems to come at the cost of manoeuvrability.

While the lethargy of the controls rubs the wrong way it does come with the upside of indirectly feeding into the idea of exploring a world you’re not suited to. It’s not your world you’re exploring, after all. It’s supposed to be difficult to get around, much like how a jellyfish might struggle to strut the aisles of your local Tesco. Whether or not all this was deliberate is up for debate, but regardless of intent, it’s an interesting example of fundamental mechanics being used to build on the themes of the narrative.

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Thankfully, the areas you muddle through are a riot of exaggerated colour that helps to set the tone of your exploration. Vivid reds, greens and pinks build a bright and charming backdrop to lighter scenes that shift to darker blues and blacks in parallel to the ebbs and flows of the story. Abzû’s use of colour is a master-stroke as it turns a fairly simple aesthetic into one of the most gorgeous games of 2016. A lot of time can drift away just taking it all in, snapping screenshots and soaking up the atmosphere.

There’s even a special feature included to help you do just that, as hidden away in each environment is a special statue for the player to sit and ruminate on their surroundings. During these ‘meditation’ sections the focus is taken off your avatar and placed on one of the of myriad of fishies gliding around them. The player has no direct control over any of these creatures, you’re just an observer, watching it all play out in front of you like an episode of Blue Planet but somebody’s muted David Attenborough’s narration because apparently they’re a sub-human monster. Not only does this slice of quiet-time give you the opportunity to fawn over the beauty, it also strengthens the feeling of the player as an outsider, gazing from the sidelines at a world that’s not their own.

Observation is clearly a key theme as it’s how Abzû does the bulk of its storytelling. Rather than rely on tightly choreographed cutscenes or reams of flavour text it tells its tale through environmental detail. As the player explores further they come across mysterious, ancient-seeming ruins interwoven with futuristic technology; all evidence of an advanced civilisation that once lived beneath the waves.

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The history and purpose of all this goes mostly unexplained, with a lot of the finer details left up to the player’s interpretation. Hints are dropped in murals daubed on temple walls but they give very little away. Abzû keeps its story cards tightly pressed to its chest and expects the audience to fill in the deliberately wide gaps.

Being a renowned idiot, I struggled to pick up much outside of a vaguely anti-industrial message but I think that’s OK in this case. It feels like a story that’s not meant to be understood straight away. The sense of bewilderment is an important part of the experience. It’s a world you’re not supposed to immediately understand as it’s not a world that you’re meant to be a part of, bolstering the feeling of separation that flows through the experience.

One of gaming’s greatest strengths is the ability to bring the player into a world with a sense of agency over what they do in it. With that in mind, it’s a shame to see so much generic repetition in the worlds on offer. From contemporary cities turned into secluded floating islands, Tolkienesque fantasy realms stuffed with predictable orcs and elves, to the dilapidated urban sprawls riddled with zombies, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve visited a lot these places a million times over.

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It’s the games that inject their worlds with personality and inventiveness that truly stand out in the crowd. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’s beautifully barren land of Vvardenfel instantly leaps to mind, as does Dishonored’s grimy city of Dunwall. These are the kind of places that capture your imagination and inspire you to keep playing just to find out more. Abzû (while not quite living up to the likes of Journey) certainly fits into this category.

It’s a slice of marine life that’s a wonder to behold and exploring its gorgeous environments are an utter delight. What’s more impressive, though, is the lonely tone the world fosters. It masterfully captures the conflict of surface and sea and does so without resorting to low-hanging fruit like irritating air timers or gruesome shark attacks. Its a game about beauty, not danger, and even with the occasional gripes it’s well worth diving in.

What a Difference a Dog Makes: Some Thoughts on the Dogs of Fallout 4 and Fallout: New Vegas

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Chris

When a prospective owner starts looking for a dog they typically make a choice that reflects their personality. An extroverted person might opt for a bouncy, fun-loving bundle of activity where a more mellow home might prefer a dog that fits a slower pace of life. To be honest, not owning a dog myself means I speak with zero authority on the subject, but with Brexit looming I have been pouring hours into Fallout, recently. You know, just to get a feel for the way things might pan out over the next few years. It turns out it’s not just people that like their dogs to ape their nature, the same is true of the two most recent Fallout games: New Vegas and Fallout 4.

Fallout 4’s ‘Dogmeat’ quickly became the poster-mutt for Fallout’s move to Boston. Standing about like a furry lemon directly outside the starting area means he’s pretty much impossible for the player to miss. He’s a sleek, gorgeous, mysteriously well-groomed German Shepherd that’s immediately obedient and doesn’t poo all over your slippers or shed fur in the wiring of all your energy weapons. Despite the ease of Dogmeat’s companionship you can’t help but feel that there’s something missing, though; a certain spark lacking behind those big, brown eyes of his.

In regards to Dogmeat’s past all we have to go on is the odd mention from non-player characters that don’t really offer anything with any real substance. The optimistic side of me might think his origins are purposely shrouded in mystery but the increasingly dominant cynical side suggests that perhaps not a great deal of thought went into the pooches place in the wider world. But hey, who cares about those finer details when he looks so cute in doggles and munches down bad guy genitals like a hungry professional? Having a dog is cool, right? Surely it’s better that more people are able to find him early and appreciate his company? The less personality and backstory the easier it is for more players to project their ideal onto Dogmeat’s blank canvas. That way everybody’s happy, right?…right?

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*Beep boop* I am a real dog. Please initiate petting protocol #443 *fzzt*

Fallout: New Vegas’ ‘Rex’ is a totally different kettle of fish, though. You won’t be finding him until you hit Freeside, a run-down district walled-off from the bright lights of New Vegas, hours away from starting the game. He’s tucked away in the back room guarded by a goon squad of well-armed Elvis impersonators and you won’t be getting acquainted until you’ve charmed or blasted your way through the gang’s compound. Finding Rex feels like a discovery. It’s unlikely that you’d miss him because a lot of unrelated quests point you in his general direction but it still feels like you’ve tracked down something that could have been glossed over and got a wicked sweet robo-dog as a reward for proper diligence. When you find Dogmeat in Fallout 4 it doesn’t really feel like you’ve earned anything. It’s like beating a toddler at arm wrestling or crushing a mid-sized house plant in a round of 3D chess. It’s a curious freebie in a wasteland supposedly so harsh and unforgiving that drags you out of the whole experience.

Much like Fallout: New Vegas, Rex isn’t likely to win a beauty contest any time soon. After two hundred years and rough work as a police dog, a hound of Ceaser’s Legion, and a companion to a gang boss it’s safe to say that time hasn’t been kind to dear ol’ Rex. Years of degeneration have taken their toll and by the time you find him the poor mutt is knocking on death’s door in desperate need of a new brain. The quest this sets up provides a genuine reason for the two of you to team up and form a bond. Progressing his story further leads to a choice that permanently alters Rex’s stats and, no matter your decision, the player has real impact on the cyber-dog’s life, strengthening the relationship between pooch and player. Unlike Dogmeat, Rex feels like a genuine character that fits with the setting, complete with a history, troubles, and personal development that shine through the more time you spend together. Dogmeat feels more like a tool the player uses than a character they get to know. In many ways the full-flesh dog feels more like a robot than the one with stainless steel legs and visible wiring, a telling irony.

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The heart and soul of a faithful friend fused with the metallic legs of an awesome robot.

Both Rex and Dogmeat make fantastic representations of the games they star in. Like New Vegas, Rex is ass-ugly, a bit kooky, and utterly falling apart but despite all this you can’t help but love him. He’s not a dog for everyone but for those who like him they couldn’t imagine anything better. His character outshines all of his faults and he’s nothing if not memorable, even if he is a bit janky sometimes. Like Fallout 4, Dogmeat is pretty and extremely functional. He’s a dog that’s easy for everyone to like but difficult for anyone to truly love. With such broad appeal he feels lacking in any kind of personality, lest he run the risk of turning anyone away. You can tell that an awful lot of time has been spent working on that glossy coat but underneath there’s not a great deal of substance to sink your teeth into. While it’s true that Rex and New Vegas might both piss all over themselves and fall to pieces every now and then, if it’s a choice between that and Fallout 4’s Dogmeat, I wouldn’t hesitate in backing the cyber-pup every single time. 

All the Goodness of 2015 That I Saw Fit to Scribble Down

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Chris

My Most Favourite: 

Bloodborne

When I first attempted Bloodborne the relationship we shared was on and off. The tweaks made to the Souls-like combat were fun and frenetic and added a new layer of challenge to the familiar set-up, but along the way its missteps threw me. Its first boss, the Cleric Beast, was not a fine choice for an opening performance. It soaks up blows like nobody’s business and its confusing mass of tangled fur makes it difficult to predict attack patterns. Trudge just a little further, though, and you’ll meet Father Gascoigne, a wonderful boss that teaches you the value of backstabs, parrying, and searching out sidequests. All the lovely things you expect from a top-tier boss battle. This pattern of colossal highs and staggering lows continues throughout the game’s bosses.

The fight with Martyr Logarius was an intense bout that demanded nothing short of perfection. Finely balancing offensive counter attacks with defensive reactions was crucial and the pitched battle tested everything learnt till that point. In short: an absolute arse-kicking triumph. But this precedes the likes of the Celestial Emissary, a beefed- up standard enemy whose main tactic is to egg on his weaker mates and hope you trip over their corpses.

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A big blue low point in an otherwise cracking time

But a game like Bloodborne is not all about the bosses. Dark Souls 2 had me worried that From Software’s phenomenal level design had fallen off but Bloodborne shooed such thoughts away. The levels loop and interconnect ingeniously, and there’s little more satisfying than finding a high spot to scope out the lay of the land. The relief upon finding a shortcut returns in spades, as does the wave of satisfaction at making things a touch easier. The seamless design connecting run-down villages to opulent cathedrals is proof, if any more were needed, that From Software are masters of their craft.

It was Yarnham, Bloodborne’s Victorian inspired setting, and the grim story within that truly cemented its place at my top spot. The midway shift from Jekyll and Hyde beasties to Lovecraftian cosmic horror comes at just the right point, and its intriguing mysteries had me digging through lore videos desperate for more information. The characters you meet along the way are a varied bunch and act as a human illustration of the terror that ravages the city. It’s a rich and fleshed out world that felt both dangerous and delightful to explore.

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Ooft, it’s all so gothic and pretty, aint it?

No game this year has gripped me quite as hard as Bloodborne. it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if sounds like your thing, you owe it to yourself to try it out.

Some Lovely Honourable Mentions

Ori and the Blind Forest

If I were to judge purely on aesthetics then Ori and the Blind Forest would have soared to top of the list. The game is flipping gorgeous. Each beautifully designed backdrop is near breathtaking, and provides the perfect setting for Ori’s agile platforming.

The soundtrack’s folklore style fits perfectly in a tale that feels like the stuff of old legends. It highlights moments of dramatic tension and relaxed exploration with seamless grace. It’s a truly fantastic score that still merits a listen long after putting the game down.

I expected tight controls and lovely visuals but what came as a pleasant surprise was the depth of its story. Ori’s journey is lightly narrated by an ageing spirit in an ancient tongue, further adding to its storybook feel. But where Ori truly shines is in its wordless delivery. Feelings, thoughts, and motives are all presented with gestures and expressions, gorgeously animated and flawlessly executed. The introduction still stands out in my mind as a particularly bumpy ride aboard the feels train, and perfectly demonstrates how to silently convey a range of emotions.

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It definitely stays this heartwarming and happy. Don’t worry about it.

Life is Strange

Hats off to Life is Strange. Never in all my days did I expect a video game to teach me about the Daguerreian Process but here it is, schooling me on it no less than four times! Phwoar! What a world we live in, eh?

All flippancy aside I loved almost every minute. The achingly hip soundtrack and picturesque scenery of coastal Oregon formed a lovely setting to a touching story of friendship, loss, and the flagrant abuse of time-travel. The early acts often feel like a chore but it quickly whips itself into shape, as name-drops and cringe-laden slang fall away in favour of surprise twists and sincere dialogue.

Just don’t let Act One fool you. Things only get better from there.

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It gave the what, professor? IT GAVE THE WHAT!? I MUST KNOW, DAMN YOU!

Undertale

Undertale is a game that’ll play on your mind. At first things seem rudimentary. An Earthbound-esque RPG with colourful characters and dark undertones? Truly, this is the Mother of all innovation! But then its veiled genius creeps out and grinds those expectations to dust. On subsequent playthroughs the game can be both a saccharine love-fest and a disturbing psychological horror. No matter what you do the game remembers, and punishes or praises in ways you could never have expected.

Throw in a beautifully composed soundtrack that begs for remixes and you have one of the most fascinating games that 2015 offered. It loses a little steam in its closing chapters but its charming cast and hilarious writing more than make up for it.

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Just look at these charming rascals

Pillars of Eternity

Not owning a meaty PC growing up meant that Pillars of Eternity was a sharp kick into uncharted waters for me. I’d heard pundits praise Baldur’s Gate and Planescape but being the shallow prick I am I struggle to get into games rocking that graphical style of ‘late 90’s boiled arse’. Pillars, however, proved to be just the update things needed.

In most RPG’s I make a vow to read every scrap of world-building fluff but inevitably lose interest when I realise that most of the budget went on gameplay and the writing was farmed out to Danny the bumbling HR intern. In Pillars I devoured its literature with gusto and discovered a rich world stuffed with interesting customs, traditions and history.

It’s a game that owes a lot to its forebears and has inspired me to take another crack at the games that inspired it. Given my past apathy to isometric RPG’s I don’t think praise can come more highly than that.

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Don’t dick about with dragons. It never ends well.

I Had a Fiddle With Bethesda’s Pip-Boy App…And It Doesn’t Do Much, Yet.

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Chris

I’ve always wanted a Pip-Boy, you know? I appreciate that technological progress led us to smartphones and VR goggles but there’s something so rustic about half a ton of steel and cathodes bolted to your wrist. It’s not like any app on iOS or Android can keep tabs on a lingering methamphetamine habit or tell me if my legs have been blown off by a lunchbox mine, is it? Didn’t think so; step the fuck up, Apple.

Thanks to some clever marketing moves we can now experience a shoddy facsimile of vault-dweller tech. With only twenty four hours before we’re locked in Fallout 4’s grasping claws, Bethesda have released a companion app to drum up some hype and give players a sneaky peaky of things to come.

If you’ve seen the game’s Pip-Boy Edition you’ll know that it comes with a Pip-Boy shaped plastic blob that’ll neatly fit your smartphone of choice. Now if, like me, you can’t afford to blow a cool hundred on such luxury then a similar experience is possible with a few strips of Gaffa Tape and a flagrant disregard for clumps of forearm hair.

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Such decadence

As it stands the app does very little. Upon Fallout 4’s release it’ll sync to your game files and work alongside your current character, but for now all you can do is launch the app in demo mode and soak up the low-fi, neon charm like so much background radiation. Despite the limited applications there are a few nuggets of information we can dig up from the sparse demo.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that the perks come with ranks now. Although ranked perks existed in previous titles it didn’t apply to all of them, whereas all of the perks displayed on the app show off some sort of ranked progression. Take the ‘Animal Friend’ perk as an example. At level one you may point your gun at any animal below your level and have the chance to pacify it; at level two you can incite pacified animals to attack; and at level three you can order the animals to fulfil a few simple commands. Fantastic news if, like me, you plan on roleplaying an old-world lion tamer.

Perhaps the most exciting piece of information is a full, scrollable map. Unfortunately the only thing marked is the location of Vault 111, the game’s starting area. As such very little is given away and, thanks to my limited grasp of Boston’s geography, all I can really confirm is that Fallout 4 will include: roads of varying width AND length; both small AND large bodies of water; and an island shaped like a vomiting whale.

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In all its majesty

Also included is Atomic Command, a small Missile Command style minigame where you shoot down an endless barrage of warheads heading straight for various landmarks. It seems a fitting choice for the Fallout world. A desperate fight against grim inevitability seems quite poignant as you wander around the consequences of nuclear annihilation.

The Pip Boy app is available right now from the Android and iOS stores and should link up to your Fallout 4 game on its release on the 10th of November.

Nasty, brutish, and short shorts: the wonderful, woeful world of Lisa: The Painful RPG

I’ve lost count of all the wastelands I’ve wandered through. I’ve poked through shattered cities, zombie-riddled farms, and war-torn towns, filling my pockets and transforming myself into a one-man wasteland superpower. The charred backdrop of societal collapse provides the perfect canvas for a traditional video game power fantasy. Swathes of bandits, mutants, and marauders are yours to tear through with little consequence, until the once bitter world is squashed beneath your thumb. Such wastelands are often designed for the player to feel strong, but with LISA, I felt weak, very, very weak.

LISA bills itself on Steam as ‘the miserable journey of a broken man.’ It’s a peculiar marketing ploy but you have to admire the brutal honesty. From the onset it’s clear that LISA’s world is cruel and uncaring, and the only way to survive is to mirror its barbarity.

If you imagine the bastard love-child of Mad Max and Children of Men squashed into a two dimensional sidescroller it would look on awful lot like LISA. A vague apocalyptic event wiped out the world’s women and with the gradual depletion of resources, the world has descended into a base wasteland fuelled on testosterone, sweat, and man muscles.

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The story follows Brad, a troubled former karate instructor, who happens upon a baby girl abandoned in the Wastes. Having experienced first-hand the savagery of the world, Brad shelters his adopted daughter, hiding her away from those who would use and abuse her. Flash forward a few years and ‘Buddy’ (the name given to the child) is kidnapped and whisked off into the Wasteland, setting Brad off on an ill-fated rescue. What unfolds is an Earthbound-esque adventure, addressing the dicey topics of addiction, abuse, and torture. Its chapters are bookended with agonising choices that highlight the throwaway nature of morality mechanics, dressing the results with a dark permanence that haunts you to the credit roll.

Such choices have a real impact, both narratively and mechanically. One of the earliest sees Brad surrounded by a gang of thugs led by a moustachioed sadist riding about on a small deer. With no hope of escape and unable to mount a fight, Brad is offered a choice: to lose his left arm or sacrifice the life of a random party member; loss of the arm severely impacts Brad’s combat abilities while losing a levelled companion could spell total disaster. The choice is grim, unavoidable, and irreversible. Where some games offer an illusion of choice, LISA revels in its consequences. A potential disaster lurks around each corner, showcasing the bleak inevitability of living in a dangerous world full of dangerous people.

Despite the worlds looming horrors and its dangerous dwellers it feels thoroughly lived in by a population shaped by their surroundings. It’s inhabitants seek entertainment as base as the world around them. Wrestling, Russian roulette, prostitution, booze, and drugs are all commonplace and paid for with the game’s currency: porn mags. It’s a world with no place for the traditional hero as the majority of traditional values have been chipped away, leaving little but depravity. Even Brad is no stranger to the degeneracy, creeping deeper into a vortex of drugs, drink, and violence as the story progresses.

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Early on LISA establishes Brad’s former addiction to ‘Joy’, little blue pills that help to wash away the pains of his past, present, and future. The temptation to slip Brad back into old habits is incessant and pervasive. When craving ‘Joy’ Brad’s combat efficiency slows to a crawl but pop a pill and each he’ll hit with extra potency. Suddenly those tricky bosses could be taken down in a pinch but only if you succumb to the pull of a total relapse. The ‘Joy’ withdrawals stalk Brad throughout his journey. Hallucinations slowly leak into Brad’s life and it’s difficult to separate the reality from the phantoms of psychosis.

At the best of times LISA’s wasteland is a vague place. It’s dark thematic notes and it’s eager portrayal of blood-splashed violence provide a jarring contrast to it’s surreal humour. Very quickly LISA earned a place among the sparse pantheon of games that have teased out genuine laughs, with one segment proving so funny I had to stop playing briefly just to recover. It’s moments like this where LISA’s wasteland shines. Brad, quite literally, bulldozes through the stories of others, and the characters he meets along the way bring the long dead world to life.

LISA’s world is a roller-coaster. It slithers under your skin and revels in disgust one moment and draws out belly laughs the next. Where most wastelands act to empower, LISA’s does the opposite. By the end of Brad’s quest he felt withered; a husk of a man brought low by the horrors surrounding him. The choices offered add up to a bloody whole that weighs heavily on the mind. Brad has to do awful things to achieve his ends and, no matter how hard you try, you can’t be any better than the world around you. The more you try the more the game kicks back, inevitably wearing you down to its depraved level. You can’t escape it’s miserable journey. All you can do is watch as the grim scene plays out, with its bleak and surreal wasteland providing a fitting backdrop.

Super Mario 64 – or – The art of translating 2D design to 3D without it being a messy pile of poo

Playing through Super Mario 64 it’s easy to forget colossal pressure that must have loomed over its creators. A decade prior, Super Mario Brothers took the festering corpse of an industry and zapped it with enough juice to convince the world that there might be a bit of potential left in this weird electro-zombie of a medium. As a result of Super Mario Bros. success, it effectively taught a generation to navigate a two-dimensional plane solely through effective design choices.

Flash-forward to the nineties and the creators of Mario 64 found themselves lumped with transferring that same wizardry into three dimensions, but a wider range of movement translated into a wider range of potential errors. Gone were the days of plonking down your player with only one direction they could feasibly move. It’s no coincidence that you start Mario 64 staring wide-eyed at a castle draped with a gaudy mural of Mario’s one motivation. Perhaps a 50ft “YOU NEED TO GO IN HERE YOU GIBBERING FUCKWAD” sign was considered a bit too overt.

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The genius of two-dimensional Mario is how the player responds to the intricate placement of everything within a level. After several attempts these intricacies become familiar and you find yourself flying through in a satisfying dash to the finish. Perhaps by accident, or perhaps in an attempt to liven things up, you’ll branch off the obvious path and stumble upon a tucked away secret. From then on, exploration becomes an intriguing element of play and the way in which you approach a level drastically changes.

Three-dimensional Mario reverses this process. With sprawling, open levels (dotted with several stars to find) exploration becomes the primary focus. Learning the finer points of everything placed in a world is undoubtedly important, but it’s nowhere near as pressing as rifling through all the nooks and crannies searching out hidden stars and coins. This shift in focus, although totally mixing up the style of play, is a masterful means of linking elements of classic side-scrolling Mario to a three-dimensional control scheme.

This focal shift shines through in Mario 64’s water levels. Cast your mind back to the water levels of side-scrolling Mario: the pace slows down and the entirety of the challenge comes down to avoiding enemies that swarm towards you; easily the low point of the whole experience. But in Mario 64 the water levels are a paragon of exploratory level design. Hidden coves hide away secret treasures, deep-sea creatures bob along the seabed, while sunken ships and a sinister submarine just wait to be poked through. The slower pace works within this context, as it creates a subtle ambiance akin to gently gliding along underwater.

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Beneath the water’s surface it can feel as though you’re entirely cut off from the world above; like you’ve plunged head-first into a space with rules and an atmosphere all of it’s own, explorable only for a few seconds before you’re forced back up to the world you came from. Mario 64 expertly captures the joys of swimming underwater and works in it’s own design elements to create a fantastic sense of both literal and atmospheric depth.

Combine this with the wonderfully thought-out sound direction and you begin to notice how far the smallest of touches can go. The main theme that plays while Mario is underwater is a slow and melodic tune with notes reminiscent of popping bubbles. The slow pace of the music accentuates the slower pace of the gameplay and drives home the message that you’ve entered a world with rules distinct from what Mario experiences on dry land. It’s true design elegance at work.

You really have to admire the team behind Mario 64. With the buzz of new technology, many a hack developer was hastily knocking up 3D horror shows hoping to ride the wave of consumer excitement right to the bank. But with Mario 64 you can tell that one question was defining the project’s development: what is fun about three-dimensional play? Mario 64’s answer laid the foundation for the early years of 3D gaming, and although rough around the edges at times, it became definitive proof that a previously two-dimensional series could work in the realms of 3D.

Even if it did have this guy, and fuck that guy.