by Luv Mehta
Welcome to August.
I’m not quite sure about the title for these series of articles. They’re supposed to have a mix of various types of media for consumption, so I can’t really say “here’s a list of things played/read/listened to”, but “consumption” isn’t a word I’m that comfortable with.
Either way, let’s see if I find a new title or stick with this one. If you’ve noticed, I’m not great at names - this blog is named “The Amateur Media Blog” because I only thought about making the most literal name for the website.
Anyway, here’s a ranked list of all the things I consoomed this month.
11. The Old Guard
When I’m working, I usually have a bunch of podcasts to listen to, and one of them is The Infinity Podcast. The podcast started as an examination of Marvel movies, but now it covers all sorts of comic books and their adaptations. They made an episode on the new Netflix adaptation of Greg Rucka’s The Old Guard last month, and gave a spoiler warning before delving into details.
I think spoiler warnings are more of an impetus for me to watch something these days, because I immediately decided to pause the episode and watch the movie that weekend, so I could get back to it later.
Released last month on Netflix, The Old Guard has a great cast and crew, as well as a pretty good hook for a story - the “Old Guard” in question refers to a group of heroic immortal beings that have saved countless people through the centuries. The concept itself is interesting, and I might be interested in picking up the comics eventually.
However, I just didn’t feel very invested in the movie while watching it. The visuals are serviceable but unmemorable, the characters are mostly nice but nothing special, and the action sequences are nice but not very creative.
I think I’d like to see more of how the world is changed by the group themselves, and how the world uniquely affects people like them. The most interesting part of the movie is a flashback to another immortal’s horrifying fate, and it seems like that will be a focus for the sequel, which is great! I just miss seeing movies that functioned less like prologues to the interesting bits.
Either way, it’s fine. Good for a watch.
10. Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist
This one’s actually a free game, it’s made by one of the co-creators of The Stanley Parable (the other one made The Beginner’s Guide, which I played last month). The studio that made this game is called Crows Crows Crows, and they’ve made another free game that I’d recommend - a text-based adventure, playable in your browser, called The Temple Of No.
The game itself is good for an hour of amusement, and it has a bunch of replay value if you’re chasing achievement completion. What interests me, however, is how the two creators of The Stanley Parable (which was itself a very meta story about choice in games) took two very different ideas about the creation of art, and ended up making two very different games.
Where The Beginner’s Guide focused more on the nature of creation, inspiration, and how the people experiencing the art could actually influence the artist in negative ways, Dr. Langeskov focuses solely on how game development is so weird, and each game is basically a bunch of mechanics and assets held together with barely visible twigs and twine.
If I had to say more, I’d be spoiling the experience, but I do have some extra thoughts on the game - not enough for a full article, but maybe I’ll write something in the future.
9. Quantum Conundrum
This one’s interesting. Quantum Conundrum is a game made by the director of the original Portal, Kim Swift. I’ve read and listened to a few of her interviews, and she paints a very interesting (and unfortunate) picture of the American games industry. She made this game after leaving Valve because she was apparently dissatisfied by the direction of the early Portal 2 plans, according to an interview with Adam Conover on the podcast Humans Who Make Games.
The game sets up a sequel hook in its last moments very prominently, which makes it more unfortunate that we’ll never see a true sequel - apparently, according to Kim Swift, issues with the publisher caused the cancellation of Quantum Conundrum 2 while it was in the middle of production.
This is especially unfortunate because, while Quantum Conundrum isn’t really the instant classic Portal was, it’s still a great game.
The core gameplay revolves around the ability to shift dimensions - one dimension is the “Fluffy” dimension, where everything is lighter and made up of cushions, one is the heavy dimension where everything is made of iron, one is a slow motion dimension, and one is a reverse-gravity dimension. The puzzles are very inventive and enjoyable, and have a lot of fun solutions too. For example, if you want to get to a platform far away and out of your reach, solving the puzzle by abusing the mechanics - by picking up a table in the Fluffy dimension, throwing it and activating slow motion, getting on top of the table while suspended in midair, and applying/undoing reverse gravity to guide the table you’re riding across the room - isn’t just valid, it’s encouraged.
This, however, leads to a problem - you have a lot of puzzles where you need to be very precise in how you use the dimensions, and timing is important, which means that once you figure out how to solve a problem, you won’t immediately be able to do so. You’ll have to work with the physics system of the game, have great control over when you’re switching dimensions, as well as which dimensions you’re choosing - a single mistake can lead to you having to redo the whole solution. This sort of stuff can be appealing to others, but it isn’t that appealing to me.
That being said, if all of what I mentioned above sounds excellent to you, pick the game up during discounts! It’s usually very cheap, I think I grabbed it for forty rupees or so.
8. A Mortician’s Tale
This is a little bit of a cheat - I played this game two months back, and completely forgot to include it in last month’s article.
A Mortician’s Tale is a small, simple indie game focusing on your character, a new employee in a morgue, and following her as she prepares corpses for cremation or burial, attends the funerals of the people she’s prepared, and has to deal with the changing times and the corruption of the occupation by capitalism.
Yes, this is a game that is ultimately critical of capitalism. A lot of indie games tend to have anticapitalist ideas and themes, which is pretty surprising - in a good way, at least to me.
I got this off of the itch.io racial justice bundle, same as Signs Of The Sojourner (a game I talked about last month, and is still on my mind - please play it), and I’m pretty happy to have experienced it. It’s a short game, around two hours or so, and there aren’t really any challenge mechanics in the game. If you’re fine with playing a purely narrative based game and have some money to spare, it’s money well spent.
There’s this series of games, the Thief series, that are pretty influential and beloved and, along with other games like System Shock series, popularized the immersive sim genre - a genre of games that paired choice-driven level design and good AI reactivity to immerse the player in a world where they felt like they could do anything.
Dishonored is a 2012 video game by Arkane Studios, designed to fit in that genre, taking more from the Thief series than the System Shock series, though it does have an extensive list of level-up options that includes powers and upgrades. More than that, Dishonored has become really popular for taking a morality system that, I assume, is inspired by the 2007 game BioShock (a game that aimed explicitly to be System Shock 2’s spiritual successor) - and, given that Arkane did provide developmental support for BioShock 2, that assumption isn’t too far off - by creating a world that either congratulates you or denounces you based on how good/evil you are.
Now, I’ve always liked the Thief series, and System Shock 2 is one of my favourite games ever, so I was hoping to get around to this one sometime. I finally did, and I liked it a lot!
Some of the level design towards the end is a little iffy, but I do like how open-ended the game feels, and how satisfying it feels when you manage to skip entire portions of the levels altogether with some quick-thinking, stealth and research. I also aimed for a no-kill playthrough, which I achieved with no issues (save for one buggy encounter at the end, but I ended up solving that too). I also have nothing but praise for the environment design, especially the steampunk nature of the mechanical constructs, and the faded walls and crumbling buildings in the dilapidated slums you traverse.
That being said, I don’t particularly love a major part of the framing of the story. Dunwall, the setting of the game, is a city beset by the plague, where the poor districts are starving and dying and the rich districts are walling themselves off and hoarding all the resources and pretending nothing is happening - this is fairly par for the course, but you’re also in charge of maintaining the power structure of the city, protecting a princess for her eventual ascension to the seat of unilateral power. It comes across as being strangely muddled and unfocused, especially when you have entire levels either set in these poor crumbling districts or in decadent mansions and grand brothels - I have to wonder what statement was made by these deliberate choices seemingly at odds with each other.
The level design is open-ended and full of replay value, and I could have started a new playthrough focused on a violent kill-all-enemies path. Maybe someday - I don’t feel like coming back to this one quite yet.
6. Rise Of The Tomb Raider
The Tomb Raider games have had an interesting history - starting in 1996, Crystal Dynamics made a series of games starring Lara Croft, who started off as being a thinly sketched female counterpart to Indiana Jones (though, to be fair, most games didn’t really prioritize characterization at that time). The games had a new take on 3D platforming that became immensely popular, and every 3D third-person perspective game that followed owed something to the mechanics and ideas demonstrated by the very first game, which combined giant sprawling levels full of monsters (with admittedly poor shooting mechanics) with intelligent exploration and traversal mechanics, good puzzle design and a great sense of atmosphere.
Then the game series got unpopular, then it got popular again, then it was ultimately rebooted in 2013 as a gritty, gory game where Lara Croft’s origins were emphasized, showing her as a normal woman exploring intense horrors on a supernaturally cursed island that eventually hardened her and opened her eyes to the evil of humankind - as well as the supernatural horrors that existed in the most remote ruins of the world.
I’ve been a fan of the Tomb Raider series ever since my childhood (the original 1996 game and Tomb Raider: Legend are my favourites of the bunch) and I like the reboot quite a bit, but this was also the time the Tomb Raider series started visibly diverging from exploration towards combat - there were many more mechanics for combat than for climbing or jumping, for example, with skill trees and customizations for your weapons.
That really hasn’t changed with its sequel, Rise Of The Tomb Raider, released in 2015 - you have new mechanics for crafting explosives and ammunition on the fly, with an increased focus on making you feel like a scavenger and improviser on the battlefield. And while they are a lot of fun, there’s something to be said about how 3D platformers are, apart from Mario, mostly only found in indie games nowadays.
That being said, there are some optional tombs throughout the game that are definitely a highlight. Even with the simple exploration mechanics, they offer multiple interactive elements in a large room to provide a puzzle that requires quite a bit of thought to successfully combine and use to get ahead to a tomb you can discover. It took up to ten minutes for me to properly understand how to solve some of them, and I really enjoyed figuring each one out.
The combat was also, even with all my gripes, genuinely thrilling - I found myself ducking and moving around from cover to cover, looking for fuel cans or walkie talkies or bottles to rig into explosives on the fly, which was a lot of fun.
Rhianna Pratchett, the daughter of Terry Pratchett, is an experienced writer for lots of games, and she’s served as the lead writer for the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and Rise Of The Tomb Raider. There’s a nice focus to the story that she brings forward, even if I have some issues with the story and the writing in this game - it's not that memorable compared to its predecessor’s story and setpieces, derivative as they were, and Lara's motivations for the main quest are mainly focused on trying to redeem her father’s reputation, bringing it to a character-based climax that, while good on paper, isn’t something I thought was very well earned.
Also, a footnote - the game is absolutely beautiful, and Lara’s face is so well rendered that I often had to gawk at the details of the hair and the facial animations (even if I don’t think the rest of the cast comes close with enough detail). The environments are also beautiful and have some great imagery, like a massive medieval ship suspended in a frozen waterfall, for example.
5. Democratic Socialism Simulator
Like A Mortician’s Tale, this is another cheat entry - I got this off the itch.io bundle as well, and I played it two months back. This is a game that’s much smaller than anything else on this list, but I feel it’s just as ambitious as any of them.
Democratic Socialism Simulator is a game built on the bones of games like Reigns, where you’re presented with a series of cards and have to swipe left or right to either deny or approve decisions. It’s very US-centric in design - the game explicitly takes ideals from Bernie Sanders, a politician that is considered left-wing in the USA, and applies it to a potential win state you need to reach at the end of your presidential term.
Which leads me to the premise of the game - you’re cast as a US president following a successful election, and you have to navigate their bureaucracy and walk a fine line between the public’s apparent wants and needs as you enact a series of public reforms.
What’s interesting about this is that, even as an explicitly left-wing game, it depicts how there are enough barriers to social change, many institutional as well as public, that anyone dedicated to the cause will inevitably find themselves compromising with the right on many issues, or find themselves making populist decisions that ingratiate themselves with the public for the short term, if only to focus on trying to get enough support on your side that you can make unpopular decisions with the focus on the long-term.
I’ve kept this game high on the list because it’s made me think of the way I usually view party leaders and democracy, since democracy itself leads to populism, and populism isn’t necessarily good for the public in the long term - but the ideal of giving power to the people means empowering them, even if they might resist changes that do give them that power. This is a complex topic, of course - it can be argued that this resistance comes about because the empowerment of disempowered sections of society becomes the real sticking point, and the people in power use news channels and cults of personality to gather support against such issues.
Whatever your stance on it, though, this is a game that uses its mechanics to make you think and confront those ideas, and I admire it for that.
4. Superhot: Mind Control Delete
This is an interesting one.
Superhot originated as a proof-of-concept browser-based game based on a simple conceit - time moves when you move. It’s a shooter, so you’ll have multiple enemies firing at you, but if you stand still, enemies will be virtually still and bullets will move at a snail’s pace. The game got enough attention that the developers made a studio and released a full retail version, with multiple hand-crafted levels and scenarios, and made a VR version too, which got special acclaim.
While working on a downloadable expansion for the original game, the team iterated on the concept enough that they believed they could make a brand new product altogether, and at the end of the process, they released Superhot: Mind, Control, Delete, meant to be a game much bigger in scope than its predecessors.
I’m not sure about whether the size and scope of the game helps it, though.
There’s a popular genre of games called “Roguelike”, where the term is derived from a 1980 game called Rogue, and describes games that give you a semi-randomized collection of rooms, enemies and collectibles that you can use to progress through the created levels. Superhot: MCD takes some elements from the genre - there are around thirty hand-crafted rooms, and you progress through nodes that give you a set number of lives and a set number of rooms, randomly chosen from the total collection, to traverse and complete. You get randomized powers as you progress through a node, and finishing a node gives you access to more nodes, as well as more story.
The story of the games themselves use a lot of meta elements, and I’ve never really been interested in them. MCD doesn’t really change that for me, and unlocking new nodes and powers can feel repetitive, as you keep finishing the same levels over and over. The powers are fun, and the core gameplay is still very addictive, so I kept coming back to the game, but I also kept closing it after a few hours because I wasn’t feeling that entertained by it.
Ultimately, I do like it. I think I just don’t have the space for repeat playthroughs of new games in my life right now. I’d hesitate to call this a better game than the original Superhot, but it’s still very addictive, a lot of fun, and while the ending’s meta touches end up being more irritating than amusing, it’s still a great game to play.
3. The Outer Worlds
(not to be mistaken with Outer Wilds, the best game I played last month)
The Outer Worlds is a game made by the studio Obsidian, one of my favourite game developers of all time, and co-created by Leonard Boyarsky and Tim Cain, two of the creators of the original Fallout, released in 1997. The promotional trailer mentions this very prominently, and this isn’t by accident - the modern Fallout games, created by Bethesda, have had a mixed critical and public reception, and Obsidian has a lot of goodwill with those critics and fans, not just for having many of the original Fallout staff at hand, but also for making the (especially in retrospective) best received modern Fallout game, the spinoff Fallout: New Vegas.
Obsidian has a reputation for making classical RPGs that give a large amount of player choice, to the extent that, in many of their games, you rarely get any explicitly good-vs-evil choices, and can kill nearly any named NPC in the story without breaking the plot. I picked up an Xbox Game Pass subscription pretty recently, and decided to try The Outer Worlds out.
Overall, it’s nice!
This is probably the most high-profile game mentioned in this article that has explicitly anticapitalist themes. The setting is set in a space colony run by a corporation where nearly everyone living in the cities is an employee of some sort, and everyone has to tailor their lives around their corporation’s products. You’ve got corrupt business executives hoarding resources for their rich cities, plague-ridden cities that prioritize medical treatment for productive employees, and a public class that has internalized corporate propaganda to the extent that they’re hostile and dismissive towards any thought of an alternative form of life being good for them - the first person you mean in the game is a soldier that refuses to acknowledge that his gun misfired and resulted in him injuring himself, because that would mean violating his employer’s rules by attributing blame to their military products.
I really, really like the setting.
There are a few choices in the game that feel important, too - you’re often given a choice between people barely surviving in a capitalist city and people barely surviving in an anarchist commune (oh, yes, there are anarchist communes and revolutionaries in this setting, of course), and if you don’t play things right (and you sometimes can’t) you have to choose between dooming one or the other. Some of these choices are difficult enough that you have to resort to depending on your ideals, too - saying any more would spoil the game, and I think I’d like to write something more on this one sometime.
The companions are very well written and extremely memorable, featuring a lively and diverse cast of characters. Obsidian hasn’t always done great with companion characters, having a cast that can alternate between brilliant and forgettable, and I think this cast of companions is their most consistent and memorable yet. The obvious breakout character among the bunch, though, is Parvati, an awkwardly charismatic and sweet engineer, with a great personal questline that delves into her insecurities as an antisocial asexual in search of love.
The problem with that questline, though, can also be attributed to the problems with most of the quests - you do a lot of repetitive quests involving going to a location, shooting a bunch of creatures/marauders, and collecting things to return to your quest giver. There are many quests that have options to skip a chunk of the content if some of your attributes and skills are high enough - for example, you can intimidate an enemy into submission, causing them to tell all their soldiers to stand down, avoiding a gunfight. However, this just highlights another flaw - if your quests either have you doing the same things over and over again, or give you options to skip through quests entirely, it just reinforces the apparent lack of ideas in the quest design.
There are some interesting ideas in the gameplay, though. As you finish quests, gather experience and level up, you receive perks every few levels, which can enhance your abilities and make your character more fun to play. As you keep playing, the game also occasionally offers you the chance to accept flaws in return for additional perks - if you’ve been hit by corrosive damage too many times, you can be offered a flaw where all corrosive damage hits you even harder, and if you’ve consumed too much food, you can accept a flaw that gives you a crippling food addiction.
Ultimately, I like the game a lot, even if the core gameplay didn’t do much to make me play it much more, and the story, while good, didn’t really motivate me enough to give it a replay. Let’s see, though - the lead writer on Outer Wilds has joined Obsidian, and she's writing for their new downloadable content pack for The Outer Worlds (and yes, this sentence is very confusing, I know), and I want to see what that new DLC has in store.
2. Return of the Obra Dinn
This is a fun one.
When I was looking around for games that filled the same kind of void as Outer Wilds (not to be confused with The Outer Worlds), I found people recommending Subnautica and Return of the Obra Dinn. I played a bit of the former after getting it through Xbox Game Pass, and while I liked it enough, it was too big of an undertaking for me to devote much time to.
This game, though? This was an especially fun one.
Return of the Obra Dinn puts you in the role of an insurance agent for the East India Company, sent to assess the state of a ghost ship, which was thought lost at sea, and has seemingly resurfaced after five years. You have, in your possessions, a journal that contains details of the crew and can be filled in with the deaths they experienced, and a magical amulet that lets you relive the last moment of the lives of each corpse you find.
The result is a strange series of vignettes that you experience out of order, going from the mundane (people dying of illness, people being murdered during a mutiny) to the fantastical (no spoilers, but it goes into some more supernatural themes). What the game asks you to do, ultimately, is to go through each vignette and find out the name and fate of each of the 60 people aboard the ship.
Yes, Obra Dinn ultimately ends up being a detective game, where you use observation, deduction and process of elimination to fill in your journal with the fates of the people aboard this doomed ship. If this doesn’t appeal to you, that’s fine! But I think you should give it a chance anyway. If the gameplay doesn’t motivate you, the art style might - the entirety of this game is monochromatic, and it’s beautiful.
1. Critical Bits
Yes, this article isn’t just 90% games and a throwaway movie - this one’s a podcast!
Critical Bits is an actual-play podcast using the Masks RPG - for a layperson, I’ll lay down the descriptions for each term down below -
I actually found this channel through the twitter feed of a YouTube essayist, Shannon Strucci, who is one of the players in the podcast. The show’s often extremely hilarious, with the various puns for the restaurants in the setting being a highlight, and there’s some good worldbuilding too, with the GM creating a setting full of fascist conspiracies that the superheroes have to face. There’s some pretty gnarly body horror, too, which is pretty sweet.
I’m not sure I can write too much about it, because this is still an ongoing campaign, and the kind of emergent storytelling that RPGs create isn’t as easily examined as other types of media. That being said, I still wanted to include it in this month’s list, especially because this is what I had the most amount of fun with.
If the description sounds fun, check it out!
And that’s it for this month. It’s been a stressful month in many ways, but I’m glad I decided to spend some time with these things anyway. Look out for another article next month!