Jul 2, 2022

Adventures of a new, old, gamer: Finishing (and not finishing) a game

I’m not sure that I’ve ever finished a console game before. When I was playing as a kid and a teenager, I would always get hung up on a certain level, or a certain boss, that I just couldn’t pass. There weren’t enough lives, not enough continues, and inevitably I get frustrated and give in. Today, I finished my first PS4 game—Detroit: Become Human. Or did I?
Connor in Detroit: Become Human
Produced by French company Quantic Dream, and written and directed by David Cage, Detroit: Become Human is about as far from what I would picture as a traditional video game as anything I have played. To a great degree (at least on the setting I played it at for my first run-through), it feels more like an interactive TV show, or a visual novel. The game takes place in 2038. The overarching story sees humanity in a place where ultra-realistic humanoid androids have become commonplace, many are home helps of some sort, while others do menial work and still others provide… more adult services. The narrative cuts between chapters in which you play as three androids (controlling one at a time). Connor (Bryan Dechart) is a detective, brought in to investigate the ‘deviants’, and partnered with an irascible detective (Clancy Brown), who doesn’t like androids. Kara (Valorie Curry) is a domestic model, who breaks her programming when the alcoholic father of the girl she looks after (Alice, played by Audrey Boustani) beats his daughter. Markus (Greys Anatomy’s Jesse Williams) looks after aging, disabled artist Carl (Lance Henriksen), and is prompted to break his programming when Carl’s adult son tries to bully his Dad for money. Within this setup, and the overarching story of an android uprising, there are a multitude of choices of actions that you can take with each character, driving the story in myriad different directions.

Besides setting the difficulty to ‘casual’, I made a few determinations early on. It was clear a lot of the choices the game asked you to make would be about situational morals, and I decided I would chart, where possible, a consistent path with each character on my first playthrough. This wasn’t always easy with Connor, as his arc within the story is often about his moral quandary between doing the job he was programmed to do and being swayed by the deviants. As an overarching principle, I decided that Kara would always try to do what was best for Alice, and that Markus would remain, again as far as he could, a peaceful revolutionary.

The first chapters are fairly simple, even a little dull. Connor has an investigation that introduces the game’s key mechanics, but then Kara has to do housework, and Markus runs an errand and serves Carl’s breakfast. It’s only quite slowly the key themes and action bleed into Kara and Markus’ stories. And yet, mundane as these openings were, they began to effectively ground the characters. This is aided by some exceptional graphical work. This game is four years old now, but as I’ve not seen the PS5 work, it’s probably the best-looking game I’ve ever played. The main characters are astonishing. The textures are lifelike; hair, clothing, and skin all look almost as if you could reach out and touch them, and the animation is nuanced. The facial animation on Connor is especially brilliant, with it and Bryan Dechart’s performance both giving the struggle of the ambiguity of ‘his’ existence real life. The supporting and incidental characters are understandably less detailed, but key ones are close to the same level of detail, and the world they inhabit, while maybe not as bustling as it could be, is well realised.
Kara and Alice in Detroit: Become Human
I don’t want to talk too much about how the story played out for me on this occasion, but even aside from the moment I mentioned in my last piece, where I realised I didn’t want to fulfill a game objective because I had grown attached to the characters, there were many more instances that put my heart in my mouth. Some of these happened because dialogue prompts can be a little vague. During a speech I had to give as Markus, I worried that one button press that ended up saying something other than I intended would undermine the way I’d been crafting the character. Similarly, almost every moment with Kara and Alice as they went on the run was nailbiting. All I wanted was to get them a happy ending, as I found myself ever more invested in that relationship, thanks to a standout performance from Valorie Curry, in one particularly great moment, she had me convinced that Kara was about to cry. At one point, I thought something I had failed to do had scuppered Kara and Alice's chances, and that felt genuinely terrible.

Markus’ section of the story is where David Cage leans hard on allegory, and it’s fair to say it’s not subtle. The civil rights parallels are clearly well-meant, and shockingly prescient at times, but the dialogue laying them out, despite a powerfully restrained performance from Jesse Williams, is often rather clanging and obvious. That said, this section is often the most engaging to play. It seems to give you the greatest chance to shape the direction, and tone, of the story. Let’s just say that there’s a much darker version I might see if I can pull off next time I play.

At the end of each section, you view a decision tree of what you’ve just done and see the boxes indicating things you didn’t do, choices you didn’t make, and paths that are now locked off. It’s tantalising, and will draw me back for more goes at this story. I was always rather skeptical of the potential of computer games as vehicles for storytelling and especially for characters you could really care about. Detroit: Become Human makes me look a little foolish on that score. It’s not a difficult game, but then it’s not meant to be. Deaths, if and when they come, aren’t there to frustrate you and send you back, instead, they fold into the story (not everyone got out of the telling on this run for me), and a subsequent game will allow you the chance to experience the story, be it that element or potentially almost the whole thing, very differently. I elected to get a PS4 because I wanted to see if I could get involved in a game in this way. I’m very pleased I could. I look forward to diving in again, and to picking up the remasters of Quantic Dreams’ previous games, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls

Jun 29, 2022

Adventures of a new, old, gamer: Restarts and New Starts

I am not particularly good at video games. This is hardly a revelation or a surprise. I wasn’t very good at them in the 8 and 16 bit era, and while they’re, in a lot of ways, more forgiving now, I’m out of practice and learning new controls and mechanics. Given that, it’s perhaps not a surprise that I’ve already had to restart a couple of games, after realising that I’ve been missing a lot of things.
Scarlet Spider in Spider-Man PS4
The city of New York is wide open to you in Spider-Man PS4, at least it is if you take the time to open it up. That’s where I’d gone wrong in my initial start of the game. I was completing missions but also marching through the story. I hadn’t taken the time to take down Kingpin’s bases, open up the towers that grant access to the city, or deal with that many low-level crimes. Restarting the game, I spent time on these things.  I got further in my percentage completion while only about half as far into the story, I opened up the entire map, and I raised my level further than I had in my initial start. With more achievement points, I crafted extra gadgets and tried out the Scarlet Spider suit. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but with the Scarlet Spider suit I found the character a little harder to control; a bit more erratic, so I have, for now, gone back to the updated suit that Dr. Octavius builds early on.

Control is still my biggest enemy in Spider-Man. To a certain degree, I’ve got the fighting down at this point. It’s probably still not pretty, but I can beat most of the larger fights on the first or second go. Web swinging is still a bit more challenging. I’ve got the rhythm of it while swinging leisurely through the city, but chase missions are still a problem, and I have to figure that out before I get back to Shocker. On the whole, I’m still having an immense amount of fun with Spider-Man, and the thrill of the feeling of really inhabiting the character hasn’t gone away.

I also restarted Persona 5 Royal. After losing a fight pretty early on in Kamoshida’s Palace, I realised that, as with Spider-Man, I hadn’t done the right prep. I had also probably made my first foray into the palace too late in the game’s somewhat unforgiving timeline. There is a LOT to do, you have to study, do your part time job, investigate things and build relationships with characters around you, all while the timeline marches forwards, sometimes in big increments, while you’re going through the school day. Inside the Palace, there are tactics to figure out and Personas to find, use and combine, and working through the various options is a challenge. Do I spend my money on medicine (and therefore build up my relationship with the doctor), or weapons (servicing the relationship with the shopkeeper). Maybe I should abandon that and spend more time reading, or hanging out with my friends. Let’s just say I’ve looked at a few strategy guides for this one. The problem with restarting is that, great as P5R clearly is, it takes a long time to get going. The many cutscenes are well rendered and acted, but going through them a second time in as many weeks isn’t ideal, and neither is an 80/20 split of cutscenes vs play for the first few hours.
Kara in Detroit: Become Human
In fresh starts, the most notable is my newest pickup: Detroit: Become Human. After a couple of days, and maybe 3 hours play, on the Casual difficulty setting (Experienced felt, frankly, like a lie) it’s in some ways the least game-like of the things I’ve played. Interaction feels more like triggering the next thing most of the time, and yet it’s done something no other game has ever done. Detroit is a multi-stranded narrative in which you play one of three different characters, scene by scene. Connor, Kara and Markus are all androids. Connor is a cop of some sort, investigating deviant androids who rebel against their owners, sometimes violently. Markus and Kara are domestic models who each end up breaking their programs, Markus when his owner’s son shows up and threatens his father for money and Kara when her owner attacks his young daughter, Alice, who Kara is essentially the sole carer for. With Kara and Alice on the run, Connor and his human partner (an excellent performance from Clancy Brown) are sent to look for them. The object of this section, while playing as Connor, is to find Kara and Alice as they hide. I didn’t want to find them. I’d got wrapped up in their stories, and come to care about both characters, and I didn’t want Connor to catch them.

The astonishing graphics draw you in, with exceptional facial animation that gives the characters real emotion, and the acting is very strong all round. I already know I’m going to play Detroit several more times after I finish this run, and that’s because of its system of choices, allowing you to take many different paths with both dialogue and action (should Kara shoplift, or hold up a convenience store?). At the end of each section the locked-off paths are displayed, along with the choices I made; tantalising hints of other ways the story could have gone, and the chance to correct choices I think I got wrong on a subsequent run. It’s a genuinely fascinating and involving way to tell a story. Is it strictly a ‘game’ on casual setting? Perhaps not, but as a proof of concept for an interactive movie, I think my reaction to having to search for Kara and Alice, and my relief at being able to choose for Connor to have to allow them to escape, speaks for itself.

Jun 12, 2022

Adventures of a new, old gamer

Level 1: Funstration. Days 3-6
So, great, I’m a teenager again. I have to go to school, do homework, do chores, go to a part time job… Oh, and fight an evil teacher in a castle created in his mind so that he’ll admit to hitting the kids on the volleyball team he coaches. Just a normal few days in Persona 5 Royal. It’s fair to say this is an evolution from the ‘run right and shoot things’ games I used to play on consoles. There have been some major changes to how P5R plays. Finally, the vast swathes of exposition (engaging as they were) have slowed a little, and the game has become more interactive and player-led. I got my first mission about five hours in, with two weeks in which to build up strength and inventory so my team and I could infiltrate this ‘palace’ and fight our way through to steal a treasure that represents our teacher’s heart. It’s fair to say this is pretty dense.

Having looked up a few things, I wish I hadn’t overwritten the save point at which I got the mission, because if I hit a game over I’ll have to rush through those opening few hours again. Fingers crossed I can beat this palace, then use a smarter save strategy. The first thing I did on day 3, following some Twitter advice, was switch the dialogue in Persona into Japanese. It honestly hadn’t previously occurred to me that this would be an option, I’d just assumed that, given the game was fully translated, there would only be the English soundtrack. Tick off another way in which I’m an idiot when it comes to gaming.

Over these few days, Persona 5 Royal has become more and more of my PS4 diet. I keep getting (I assume) closer and closer to beating the first boss on Spider-Man. I’m trying to follow the on-screen prompts, but I just haven’t mastered the speed, nor the instinct for which button is where, and what combinations I need to execute. I get that the speed is part of both the challenge and the appeal, but if I could slow it by just 10-15%, I’m betting I’d be through this part already.

P5R, even if I weren’t frustrated with Spider-Man, would still keep drawing me back though. Can we talk about the art style? I get a little irritated when, every time I see a reaction to a J Rock track, the first thing out of the person’s mouth is: ‘So, it sounds like an anime’ (and yes, many of the bands have done anime songs, but still, it’s such an unimaginative thing to say). THAT SAID… P5R feels like being given an anime series as a sandbox to play in. I love the 2D animated sequences that form some of the cut scenes, and the all out attack sequences you can trigger during fights. The colours and characters leap dynamically off the screen. The in-game look, which is used for a lot of the storytelling as well as fights and exploration, is equally beautiful. The 3D characters are a little stiffer than their 2D counterparts in dialogue sequences, but come into their own when you’re controlling them. New abilities and tactics are doled out on a regular basis, most usefully hiding and the ability to ambush, which help reduce the prevalence of enemies in the palace.

Now we arrive at Day 6, and I’ve hit my first game over on Persona. Ironically, it happened because I was trying to hide from an overpowered enemy, and it found me.  It’s frustrating because I’ve lost a lot of items I’d collected. I’m now thinking (having also peeked at an online strategy guide in a couple of moments where I’d got stuck) I could have used my time prepping for the palace mission better. I wonder if starting a whole new game and changing a few tactics might be an idea, but wading through the first 3 hours in particular could be a bit of a snooze. I think I’ll give it one more go and see how badly the lost items impact me. I guess the theme of these days is fun and frustration. Funstration. That’s probably as it should be.