75 Reviews liked by djbilybool

Mumbling "they're not ready for my gambit" and locking in my action before I do the stupidest shit in the world and get the snot beaten out of me

Anatomy is one of those cultural fetish objects that is written about by critics as a sort of Voight-Kampff test or Rubicon to cross. It falls within a style of art that appeals to interpretation and self expression through criticism: as in poetry we have analyses of Dickinson’s poorly scrawled letters or Sapho’s endlessly retranslated fragments; as in music we have this overturning and mirroring newly appearing in the music of Julius Eastman right now; as in film there are endless essays on the short and long works of Jonas Mekas or on the varying iterations of parlour tricks in Marienbad. In games, this type of fetish criticism tends to be more rare - cyclically there are discussions on IPs reverentially (the Dark Souls of whatever or the timeline of Zelda) but rarely does there crop up a game that pours out writing equally revealing of the game and the player/writer. Of course, nearly anybody who has chosen to do some writing on games has gone at too much length over a specific game niche to their own interests, but less often is there a game with an audience seemingly populated only by those who wish to espouse at length both the merits of the software and the experiences of play surrounding that .exe.
I won’t give into that impulse here, in any way moreso than is typical of my longwinded frothing, but I will try to at least see from where the bridge has been constructed in Anatomy and to where it ports traffic in its players. Something beyond its place and time (beyond the narcissistic indie prestige that comes with its makeup and distribution) resonates at a unique frequency for people, and just as much as it is worth investigating the game’s explicit texts and its audience, it is worth investigating Anatomy’s cultural presence presence. Just as in Dickinson, Eastman, and Mekas, the tension between alienation and opacity is not secluded in the face value of Anatomy: there is a read that dignifies the idea of the house as something which is present and obscured, enshrining the psychological force demanding the critical/diaristic writing that populates Anatomy’s cultural profile. That divide and union typifies this style of intensely isolated and cozied art: Eastman’s hammering minimalism unseats yet forcefully teaches his melodies violently; Dickinson’s ironclad form is belied by contrasting and incomplete metaphors built of the familiar; Mekas’ capture of comforting everyday life is reduced to truncated memory stylised outside the initial experience of it and further made partial in each recall; Anatomy sections its rooms with the inset knowledge of North American floorplan familiarity, and then betrays the player with endless trespassing transgressions across boundary. All of these are contrasting and codependent ideas which must be bridged by an emotional reaction to the art - founding an expanse which can only be commuted across by firmly planting descriptions of the experience which set off the audience member, which then demand a thorough extolling of that journey for the coordinated expectation of the journey’s destination to complete the thematic resonance. In Anatomy, the idea of the home is the horror but it is also the stakes. The player must identify with a primordial, and subconscious, ordination of sleep, sustenance, and security while equivocating to antagonistic ideals which are invading the subconscious via text denying any particularity towards a universal feeling of those fulfilled urges. I think this is why Anatomy impresses itself so much on its players: it strongly makes a case for its themes in as outspoken a manner as it can and directly counters them to the unspoken understanding most players have in costumed iconography making up the world. It’s this wonderful push and pull of where the site of resonance sits - it moves from the player inhabiting the home to the home consuming the player.
Outside of the text itself, Anatomy is also one of those prestige art objects which, as I said above, can be fetishised for its value of incompleteness. This is often the outside article which denotes the opposing ideals of insider and outsider art, but more importantly, differentiates insider and outsider audiences. The everything for everyone style of creation is the dominant form in all popular mediums - blockbusters like Avatar or Star Wars, thrillers from Stephen King or adventures from Brandon Sanderson, games like Assassin’s Creed or Halo: these are experiences which demand completion of their themes not from the place in the interfacer where those themes mine their iconographic substance, but from the collective consciousness informed by a heavily authored culture. Whether that is manichean ethics, broad antediluvian eco-populism, by numbers approaches of rudimentary logics initialising fictional systems and those fictions operating within them, or even mundanity of hyper familiar context sensitivities across an engine - all of these popular media require not an excitement of new and strange, often painful, mortal fuels within any individual’s capacity to care for what is being communicated, but instead scrap scaffolded by audience populism. Not that there is anything wrong with that on its face, especially when utilised for wrestling popular narratives away from dominant and harmful cultural forces (such as with Star Wars’ parodying 20th century American imperialism), but it typically leads to less acute extolling across any singular piece’s audience, such as is seen in Anatomy and its cultural cohorts. So why does Anatomy cause pens to burst from the palms of its players? Because suburban houses are scarier than the tombs in Tomb Raider, obviously.

The gorgeous movement animations present the cybernetic body as both fluid and brittle; the frame rate chops and it almost looks as though pixels are falling off with every violent act. The player and machine come together and collapse again in a swarm of noise. Within minutes it has more to say about apocalypticism and speculative futures, networked subjectivity, and the materiality of digital memory than any book I've ever come across.

Before delivering on any of its digital impressionist vistas, Firewatch throws us into a black screen where we get to choose how we fail our loved one. We can only fail them, however hard we try, and that is our introduction to the game. It's a brief section, but it sets player expectations for narrative decision making in Firewatch, and demonstrates how even the smallest piece of player agency can make for something emotively charged when done well. As with Telltale's The Walking Dead it's not about mechanical branches, but about the player participating in the drama, providing the human angle to the game's events. As blockbuster games become more elaborate with the way they deal with cause and effect, indie games isolate moments of reflection, forcing the player to consider their own values as they work through what's happening on screen. Kentucky Route Zero does this with free association such that the player begins unconsciously drawing out their own fears and anxieties, but in Firewatch we simply participate in constructing Henry's bullshit. He's doing the wrong thing, reasonably or unreasonably, and when called out he's unlikely to tell the truth, because he himself has lost his mooring. Whatever we say is the right thing, because anything we could say would be wrong.
Firewatch has received widespread praise for its visual style, and for good reason. Where similarly expressive works such as Inside and Shelter are so commanding in their style that the player can only act in accordance with their logic, Firewatch holds back for an openness that makes it feel conventionally navigable. Its colour palettes draw on the jarring experiments of Proteus but its forms and textures are staunchly mimetic, and its pastel finish draws it back into stylisation compared to contemporary The Witness. This last point is critical, as the diffused colours and light effects make the game feel like an echo; like it's happening in past tense. Whatever narrative reason frames the game, there is a wistful quality to Firewatch that brings with it a knowing melancholy that this is all a fabricated memory. Even when outside influences threaten this rose-tinted utopia, when the developers employ cinematic ellipsis to have the world of Firewatch step down in favour of character-centric drama, the player feels it calling back through time. The parallel here to Henry is obvious, as he clearly needs to get back to the responsibilities of his life outside of Firewatch, but as the mysteries of the game grow more pronounced and even dictate our engagement in the dream-environment, the player's affective link to it is broken in favour of someone else's enacted drama. Prince Avalanche, another work in the wake of the Yellowstone fires of 1988, better handled this temporal unease, allowing the viewer to wander around Alvin and Lance's narrative instead of being chained to it. The story in Firewatch is good in the sense that it's well paced and often frightening, but a stronger work would have been made if it had been pushed into the background, allowing us to become one with the environment, and with loss itself.
There is the sense that Campo Santo are well aware of this, and opt for a balance between the much derided 'walking simulator' and a more obvious narrative compulsion to satisfy all potential parties. Rather than feeling lost, we come to watch someone else being lost, and the most compelling embodiment of isolation (the environment) becomes the stage for dialogue-driven storytelling about precisely this. I'd opt for an inverse balance of narratological and ludic components (in order to enhance the emotional significance of both), but can't begrudge how well the developer goes in the opposite direction. The dialogue is perfect, the performances uniformly tender when tender counts and guarded when it doesn't, the map circular enough for linear storytelling. The story is a con, the conclusion invariably a betrayal, but where the game's scripted 'moments' and role-plays subside are the small instances of individual panic and satisfaction that the player takes with them into the day, the week, the month. I can't wait to see what Campo Santo will do without feeling the need to compromise.

Woke propaganda that teaches players to pick men as their sexual partners

Bennett Foddy has a lot of insight and perspectives to share here on all manner of things; art and how our relationship with it has changed in the age of the internet, of streamers, of lets plays and having everything at our finger tips, the benefits and costs of making your art either abrasive or accessible and how this applies to videogames, about finding worth in aesthetics beyond those that we would typically consider beautiful or appealing, about frustration, and loss, and pain, and starting over. This was all just in the first half of the game, I never could get past the game's mid-point that fans refer to as Orange Hell, and even just that half of the game is full of compelling insights and a lot to chew on.
I don't know, though. I've tried playing this game twice now and have ultimately had to give up not out of frustration or upset or whatever, but just out of the eventual sheer and complete boredom that sets in. Foddy's commentary is in many ways the real meat of the game to me, and at the end of my most recent attempt I'd gone over an hour and a half without hearing any commentary from him, any music, or anything, as I'd repeatedly get up to Orange Hell again only to fall back down. It's not that I'm even upset over all this, but it's just such an immensely under-stimulating experience when you get caught in that grind like I did.

Hyper Demon is basically just Doom Eternal for people who liked Eternal’s shift towards being a ‘game-y game’ but didn’t like how it executed its mechanics.
Both games try to combine Ninja Gaiden’s high difficulty and hyper aggressive enemy design with fps combat, creating stylish action games focused on RAW EFFICIENCY - killing enemies faster than they can kill you. Whereas Eternal took influence from MMO combat with cooldown management, infinitely replenishing resources, frequent healing, and damage rotations - Hyper Demon takes influence from minimalist arcade games, focusing on simple tactical trade-offs, routing, and long term risk/reward with a small but multi-faceted toolset.
An easy example is by looking at the first enemy you meet in the game - a Spawner (don’t know the official names, sorry). You can instantly kill the Spawner with a long-range laser, kill it with a melee attack to grant an instant speed boost, or kill it with your daggers to drop an item box.
If it drops an item box, you have 3 options -
1. Destroy the box with a laser to spawn a large swarm of homing daggers, automatically killing any nearby enemies
2. Destroy the box with a dash for a speed boost
3. Destroy the box with your daggers to spawn GEMS
Anyone familiar with Ninja Gaiden’s essence system knows exactly how this works. Pick up the essence gems to level up your weapons (HD does this automatically, no need to buy things from a menu) or destroy the essence to charge up a UT high damage super attack (in this case a big-ass laser beam). You’re balancing the short-term value of laser attacks vs the long-term value of powering up your weapons. And it’s not like you can stockpile these lasers - just like NG, you either use it or lose it.
BUT THEN, you have to consider aiming the laser directly at an enemy vs aiming the laser at the ground, splitting the shot to stun multiple enemies simultaneously.
The other enemies are also interesting to fight against! Larvae are trivial if shot from afar but function as jump pads if you dash into them, giving you a reason to get close. Spider enemies are annoying because they absorb any essence you leave on the ground, but if you deliberately leave them alive for long enough, they‘ll spawn explosive canisters that can be shot to decimate waves of enemies (and the explosions are bigger if you use a laser). There are also Snakes which are mostly harmless, but if you leave them alive for too long, they’ll block access to slow-mo power-ups by surrounding them with impenetrable steel tails (and the power-ups themselves can be sacrificed in place of Essence if you want to shoot a fat laser). Enemies spawn in large groups, so you always have to consider ‘What enemy should I keep alive? Who’s my biggest priority right now?’ There are even more enemy types in the game, but those will be a surprise for anyone who can survive for more than 2 minutes (much harder than it sounds!).
I’m not gonna list every decision you make in a run (I haven’t even talked about all of the movement options like bunny-hopping, fakes, or shotgun jumping) or go over its commitment to fairness (great sound design + spherical projection provide near perfect information) but hopefully you can see how every interaction is about making a deliberate trade-off that can subtly snowball over the course of a run. Routing what enemies you want to kill and how you want to kill them has a lot of depth! And this is all tied together with a simple scoring system where you lose points every second but regain points anytime you kill an enemy, forcing you to play as aggressively as possible if you want to maintain a high score. I’m absolutely in love with this game, and can see myself chasing high scores for the rest of the year. If Eternal rubbed you the wrong way (or you just want an alternative to Ultrakill’s Cyber Grind), then I highly recommend Hyper Demon!!!

Another feeble attempt to convince me that things like "chores" and "manual labor" are fun. Pathetic.

to disparage 3rd strike is often blasphemy in fighting game circles. for many, this is the ur-fighting game, a dizzying concoction of tight and expressionist mechanics, gorgeous spritework, and a dnb soundtrack that is absolutely fuego. it even has that little fundamental spice that all premier fighting games must aspire to possess: a disregard for balance. most modern titles would never dare nerf a character so significantly purely for thematic purposes, but then again, no modern title would ever think to include characters like twelve or chun-li (edit: this is a patent lie. tekken 7 season 3 had both leroy and fahkumram.)
still, what makes this game fascinating years on has little to do with any of its individual elements. fundamentally, it's the mood. it's a game that feels as though it was made on the verge of something great and unknown, and is one of those rare few titles i'll posit encapsulates a certain je ne sais quois, a snapshot of a particular zeitgeist heading into a new millennium. sure, you can point to the more overt references and stylings - strong WWF influence, character select rap, yang, yun, and q are maybe the most 90s characters ever designed, the illuminati as an antagonistic force and its seemingly benevolent villain - but more importantly, it's a composite of characters who are just wandering, trying to find themselves in some instances or seeking mastery in others. there's no pressing tournament to attend to, and even the machinations of the literal illuminati are vestigial, with its plotting mostly centered around biblical rivalry between tyrants. street fighter 3 was originally just about a new generation - itself neatly characterized as 'of its time' - but 3rd strike flips the script. rather than establishing new legends, this game is about characters unsure about what the future entails, about what their next move should be, about what it even means to continue fighting - they waver, they fail, they practice, they move on. even though these ideas are reflected in little moments (chun-li teaching children to put up their dukes, elena reflecting on her journey and her future with a pen pal, alex losing to ryu but refusing to back down),even just aesthetically this theme is completely overpowering - its what imbues 3rd strike with a kind of melancholic ambience, but also what fuels the players' determination to prove themselves.
even better, to this day, this is still the only street fighter that is aesthetically unique to itself. street fighter 2 features worldly caricatures, alpha often feels like it lacks confidence or that it's missing something, 4 is nostalgic pageantry, and 5 is a slipshod mess of meaningless platitudes with no direction. this is the closest capcom ever got to imbuing their flagship franchise with unique stylings; it's something that actually has character and personality comparable to an SNK title. this, probably more than the joy of hitting a parry, setting up aegis reflectors, or getting in my opponent's head, is probably what keeps me coming back. fight for the future, so what's it gonna be, the third strike y'all it's street fighter 3

Writing about any sort of thematic implications of play or ludic tone that Neon White puts forward would, even if accurately restated and taken without malicious audience, kind of damn the game in the evaluation. The play, as anyone who has paid attention to the game at this point, has a perfect arrangement in matching facades of what the player thinks they are capable of, what the game demands of them, where they may fail to, and how high they can go; it works on all levels of engagement from just arriving at the finish line to calculating each jump and turn with geometry. But, the play is just that: a beautiful equation which is austere and elegant on the blackboard but more implacable as the chalk used to write it up there. And that’s just the play. The writing and narrative of the game, if anything in relation to the play, are an equation written up on the chalkboard with diagrams of conspiracy theory, dance steps, and Lamarckian prognoses of evolution; in short, it doesn’t add up and couldn’t add up due to there being nothing of cogency or interest or depth within the writing of the characters or their journeys. Jacob Geller called it delicious cringe in his review, I call it inedible.