Favorite Moments in Playing Videogames 2017

Being a “patient gamer”, I rarely play enough new games to make any kind of meaningful end of year list. However, each year brings a few lasting memories from the games I played and the people I played them with. I am going to try to remember my favorite moments playing games from the past year and why they were special to me. Maybe they will be interesting to you, but at least this way I won’t forget them.

Dance of Death in the Yellow Tulip in Prey

Prey is one of my favorite games, maybe of all time. I loved immersing myself in the world of Talos 1 and struggling against Typhon and robots with my wrench and my PVC glue gun. I played the game on the harder difficulty and had trouble with some of the game’s early enemies (like most people I think) but I managed to scrape by. It is usually the game’s opening that is pointed out as being spectacular, and it is, but it isn’t my favorite moment from the game.

In one mission, you need to collect a variety of audio recordings of crew member Danielle Sho so you can spoof the audio lock on a part of the station. This meant going around the station and listening to voice mails and recordings that had the character in question talk. One of these recordings is in the space station bar and lounge – The Yellow Tulip. It is a recording of Danielle’s performance of a song called Semi Sacred Geometry, an upbeat electronic song with melancholy undertones.

You need to go into the sound booth to start the song. Once the music starts blaring from the speakers, Typhon Phantoms appear and make their way towards you. These aliens are human-shaped black mists that move really fast and use psychic energy to throw you across the room and are generally very dangerous at lower levels. Usually I would stalk these from the rafters, immobilize them, and then eliminate them. Now, I am frantically pointing my shotgun in multiple directions, firing off blasts, sliding across the bar and all to the beat of the driving bass drum.

As a game, Prey has a very specific ambiance – unnerving, suspenseful, tranquil. The soundtrack rises and falls, sometimes arbitrarily, making me think I was always going to get attacked. When it is not rising and falling , it is subdued and downplayed, a perfect fit for a dead space station. The only moments of life is when you find certain items and you hear a short, melancholic piano melody.

I played the game to fit, checking every corner, trying to enter new areas from unusual directions, usually through a vent or by climbing the pipes. If there was a phantom, or a mimic, and hopefully not something worse, I at least would get the drop on it. Most of my fights early in the game were frantic and desperate attempts at survival. I would inefficiently use up resources and find the next encounter further complicated as a result. I spent, like most people I would guess, the first part of Prey feeling weak. In The Yellow Tulip, blasting away at phantoms to a bass drum and melody, was not only the game breaking form in a pleasant way, but also the only time I felt like a badass aboard Talos 1.

Beating my Nemesis in Shadow of Mordor

So this game didn’t come out in 2017 but it wasn’t until the past year that I got round to playing it. As I noted before, every person who plays Shadow of Mordor has their nemesis story. My story involves not one, but two of them at the same time. Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember their names. I spent most of the early part of the game running around Mordor and collecting secrets, plants, and hunting animals.

I would sometimes get killed by Orcs, as you do, and I kept running into the same two orcs over and over again. After every death, I would see them get promoted and their level raise and I eventually told myself that enough was enough, these Orcs need to die before I really have no chance to take them down. Instead of searching for some plant or animal to fulfill some arbitrary and ultimately unrewarding objective, I started to hunt these two Orcs even though I knew I was punching above my weight.

Try as I might, I could not take them down. Oh, more levels for you Mr. Orc, how nice. I don’t know if it was that the combat hadn’t gelled with  me yet, or if I was truly underleveled, or maybe I was just really bad at this game. Feeling down, I once again declared enough was enough! And by that, I meant I needed to avoid them, pick on some smaller orc for a change. That would build up my crumbling confidence.

I looked over the Orcs known to me and found an ugly, skinny orc who was a mere level 5 or 6. In contrast, my two nemeses were well over level 15 at this point. This scrawny Orc should be no contest. I quickly made my way over to his location, harried the orcs in the area with arrows to thin their numbers, and then jumped in to fight my target. The fight was going well, I was getting in a few good hits and blocking incoming ones. Then the camera froze and I see one of my nemeses come around the corner. The camera zooms in on their face to deliver their taunt, which I must admit stung. I took down the skinny Orc and then I tried to get away but I ended up giving my nemesis another level after that.

Then I avoided these two completely, even checking the map and getting intel on their location to be sure that I would not be around them while running around and doing quests. I don;t know if it was an upgrade, or I got better, or another power, but I reached a point in the game where I could take down very strong Orcs without breaking a sweat. I decided then to return to my two nemeses and show them the new me.

I found one of them deep in an orc stronghold. I slashed my way through a sea of orcs to get to him and we fought hard. I was doing well, blocking, cutting, slashing. Halfway through the battle the camera froze again and I saw my second nemesis come over a hill. The taunt this time did not work on me because I knew I was ready.  I took both of them down that time.

Finding Out Who I Was in Tacoma

I didn’t know who I was in Tacoma, well not really. I was a freelancer sent by a corporation to recover some goods from an abandoned space station. As I progressed through the story, I became more and more disturbed by the actions of my employers. As the game’s backdrop is the future of employment, I felt that it was intentional. To myself, I rationalized it as I just had a job to do. I can disagree with my employer’s actions, even hate them, but work is work.

However, this isn’t a particularly positive feeling, especially when the corporation that contracted you thought that killing a station of innocent people is all fine and dandy in the pursuit of money. When the twist, if you can call it that, was revealed at the very end I couldn’t help but fist pump.  I now knew who I was and that was someone cool! I actually work for the AI Liberation Front and am here to save the station’s computer ODIN.

A game where you passively experience a tale of corporate oppression, the turnaround that you were fighting it all along was a great feeling and a perfect end to a touching game. It would have been easy to have it end on a cynical note and it would have been easy to present the player character as just an object to view the theatre in front of you. This small touch gave the game such much more meaning on a personal level and it left me impressed. I was no longer a passive bystander, I was fighting the good fight all along.

Solving the Final Puzzle in The Witness

I approached The Witness with the firm resolve not to spoil any of the puzzles for myself. I ended up just spoiling two, which I think is still pretty good. One was because I did not notice the ground moving in a certain area of the swamp. The second was a colour puzzle that was damaged so each dot was multiple colours. I hated that one. But hints and spoilers will not help you on the very last puzzle, the music box.

Recently, two friends were playing The Witness in tandem, having a competition to reach the end and they were strongly against spoilers of any kind. I asked them how they were competing – the number of puzzles solved? It was tied to the playtime and I am still not sure how they were measuring success. Nevertheless, I told them there is only one puzzle that matter for any kind of competition in The Witness, and that they would know what I meant when they found it.

It took me many tries to beat this puzzle, but when I was finally able to solve it I knew I had done it myself. There was no way I could have cheated or looked up a solution. In a way, it is a perfect end to a puzzle game, a last remix and challenge where you need to draw on everything you learned. A final test of your mastery – and I passed.

I don’t remember what you get when you solve it, and I don’t really care. It only mattered that I did it. Although I haven’t listened to Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King since.

The Moment that Made Me Decide Not to Refund Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds

I had been watching streams of people playing Battlgrounds so by the time I purchased it, I knew I would like it. However, there was one moment in particular that stands out in my first few solo games that defined how attached to the game I would become. I spent a few days debating (and not playing more than an hour and a half) whether to refund the game or not because my old gaming laptop was barely able to keep the game running in the first four or five minutes. Buildings wouldn’t load, loot wouldn’t spawn, and sometimes I wasn’t even able to move. I usually had to land in sparse areas and fumble around at 5 FPS and hope that no one saw me. If I got through those first five minutes though, then it was great! This moment is the one that made me decide to keep the game and to keep playing, despite being frustrated and handicapped by its performance on my computer.

One of my favorite first-person shooter games is Far Cry 2 because of the hostile and unforgiving environment it has and for its level of immersion. I had decided to approach PUBG in the same way – dropping down, sneaking around, slowly looting and expecting an enemy in every corner. I would creep across Erangel from tree to tree, taking my time to get the jump on someone, filling my head with even more tension than the game already provided.

It was raining on the island that day, and I was crouched, sneaking around like I do when I came upon one of the octagonal towers that are everywhere. This would be my refuse as the circle closed in on my spot, a small shelter from whence I could rain bullets down on the other survivors. As I was about to get on the steps, I noticed there was something wrong with this tower, one of its windows looked wrong – it had a pane of glass missing. Was there someone in there? I had heard no sounds and I doubted the inhabitant, if there was one, could have heard my sneaking over the rain. My heart started beating faster.

To make sure, I readied a fragmentation grenade and lobbed it through the window. I waited for what seemed like minutes, ready to fire as the person inside scrambled to get away fromt he grenade. Then – BOOM! The rest of the glass blew out, but there was no other sound.

I waited a few beats, still nothing. Happy to discover that whatever inhabitant had been here before, I ascended the stairs to take ownership of this little refuge. My heartbeat relaxed, I felt relieved, and I stepped into the upper level of the tower. I quickly swept my vision across the room before positioning myself to better see the fields where others would come, running from the blue.

Then I heard shots, close by. I turned as my health bar got chunked down. Someone came flying out of a small alcove I hadn’t seen and was firing as fast as they could in my direction – and hitting. I fired back, might have nicked them, but it was too late. They had gotten the jump on me during my moment of relaxation and swiftly dropped me under a hail of bullets.

Even though I did not survive the encounter, that moment occupied my mind for the next few days. When I was working, all I could think about was getting back into Battlegrounds. I loved the feeling of always being in danger, even when you think you are safe. It was a great feeling that I had been able to deduce that someone was, in fact, in that tower but they had bested me despite my best efforts.

I have put many, many more hours into Battlegrounds by now and, truthfully, it’s been a bit harder getting that feeling of tension back. I was playing pretty early, with others who were also inexperienced, and it gave me a heightened level of fear and a will to survive. Now, I do not jump at every movement. I know that crouch walking over the map is the best way to get caught in the blue. I play mostly with my friends now, not solo, and we are a bit more run and gun than when I used to play with myself.

But I will never forget the moment that made me decide not to refund the game, and eventually get a new computer.

(The first Chicken Dinner, and everyone since, was pretty good too.)

 

Prey: Who is Morgan Yu?

Prey is a game about identity. It is a game that fully embrace’s Arkane Studio’s mantra of “Choose the Way You Want to Play”. Each section of the space station have areas that can be accessed in multiple ways depending on how you are playing the game. Each “weapon” has a specific use for a specific enemy or situation. Each power enhances your capabilities or gives you new tools to deal with the dangers and the exploration of the space station.

It can be compared to the Dishonored games, also by Arkane, and their chaos system although in Prey it is a lot more ambiguous. In Dishonored, depending on how you approach a mission, you will either raise or lower their overall chaos level. Kill a lot of people, and chaos rises but spare them, and chaos remains low. This affects the game world by making it more dangerous and decrepit and also influences the ending of the game. Usually a high chaos playthrough will give the negative ending while low chaos provides a more optimistic ending. In Prey, this system is mostly hidden and will not affect the environment or the ending, but instead is a reflection on who Morgan Yu is and by extension, who the player is.

Prey takes place on a space station orbiting the moon, Talos 1 run by the Transtar Corporation, that has suffered a catastrophe. You play as Morgan Yu, one of the sibling pair that runs the station, and you need to explore enough to make an informed decision about the fate of the station and the research carried within.

Through playing the game, the player creates their own identity based on the tools they choose to use. Do you want to stay human but use the blood of Russian prisoners to enhance your abilities? Do you want to take on some alien powers and give up some of your humanity? Or will you remain pure and take no special abilities of any kind? This identity is not only limited to how you play (stealthy human, bad-ass alien, techno-engineer beating mimics with a wrench) but also to what kind of person you are, or at least who Morgan is.

Talos 1, the space station where the game takes place, was constructed to research an alien organism known as the Typhon and to use organic material from these creatures to create neuromods. A neuromod is a type of brain enhancer which allows a person to instantly learn skills previously learned by another human. With a neuromod, a user will be able to learn a foreign language instantly or learn how to play a musical instrument. In the game, it is through neuromods that the player upgrades their skills and learns new abilities.

The process of creating a neuromod is disturbing since it hinges on extracting an exotic material by feeding the alien creatures human “volunteers” – Russian prisoner slaves – to spawn more aliens which are then put through a process to extract the exotic material. A side-effect of using neuromods is that when they are removed, they also remove all the memories of whatever happened since the neuromod was installed.

There are a few key areas in the game where you come across this directly. In one instance, such a test was interrupted half way through and you can choose to either let the test be carried out, or to let the prisoner escape. In another instance, you come across an audio recording of the murder of your love interest’s father. This second one is especially chilling as it is Morgan who gives the final command to execute the prisoner for the sole purpose of seeing if the alien creatures interact differently with an elderly human.

When you start the game, Morgan has suffered memory loss and does not remember much about the station or the people on it. As you work your way through the station, the relationship between Morgan and their brother Alex changes. At first, it sounds like Alex was conducting tests on Morgan against their will but as you spend more time in the station, the truth starts getting uncovered.

Everything that Alex was doing was actually done under Morgan’s express instructions. Morgan wanted to submit themselves to the tests voluntarily, wanted to experiment on the Typhon. Alex goes from creepy power hungry brother to a brother carrying out his sister’s wishes. The different incarnations of Morgan you meet – December, January, the Morgan in the recordings – are all Morgans who have, at the time, a different view of the situation due to “personality drift”.

Personaly drift is one side effect of this constant neuromod installation and remova. Each time Morgan goes through the procedure, their personality shifts slightly. Over time, they have become “someone else” which not only explains Alex’s behaviour to an extent, but also gives the player a blank slate in which to imprint their version of Morgan on.

The effect of personality drift is manifested in two operators – or service robots – which you come across at the beginning of the game. These robots’ purpose is to help Morgan escape from the station but their priorities are completely different. December wants to guide Morgan to a secret escape pod to allow for a swift escape but only for Morgan. January wants Morgan to blow up the station with everyone in it to prevent the spread of Typhon to Earth. Both December and January were created at different times, when Morgan’s personality was different. December is concerned with personal preservation without considering others. January is concerned with containing the Typhon threat at all costs. There is a third option presented by the game as well, via Alex, where you should finish your work in creating a device which nullifies the Typhon.

As you go through the station and learn about the crew, the Typhon, and the evils of the Transtar corporation, what you decide to do ultimately decides what kind of Morgan you are.

Who Is the Real Morgan Yu?

No matter what you choose to do, the very final ending sequence will be similar. You awake from a dream and find yourself in a chair. The whole experience was nothing but a virtual reality simulation based on Morgan’s actually memories of what happened on Typhon 1.  Alex is there with 4 operators standing in front of Morgan (is it Morgan?) and together they will evaluate your performance.  The purpose of this simulation is to evaluate your performance to determine if you have enough empathy to work with. It is revealed that the Typhon have  made it to Earth and that you are actually a Typhon that they tried to use human neuromods on. Talos 1 was a test to see if you would be a good candidate to bridge the gap between humans and Typhon, so that the two species could try to work together. Alex explains that they tried to make humans more like Typhon but they never tried to make Typhon more like humans.

An “it was all a dream” is interpreted as a cheap way to end a story but it really works here. The obvious response to such an ending is that nothing mattered. From all the choices made in the game, nothing ultimately made a difference.

But it does.

The final choice, whether to shake Alex’s hand and agree to help humans and Typhon understand each other or to kill everyone, at first seems strange but it is the final chance to define who you are.

Do you agree to help because you have seen, truly seen, what humans are? The characters and side stories in the game cover a lot of the complexities of the human experience. Scattered about are traces of love stories and breakups, people with a difficult time dealing with their demons, addiction, theft, hybris, manipulation, death, sorrow, hope, strength, leisure, and more. Most characters are not presented, eventually, as clearly good or clearly bad. There are a few exceptions, and even your brother Alex comes across as manipulative but by the end we discover that his behavior was loyal.

Do you agree to help because the Typhon are terrible? A race of aliens that devour the minds of other creatures to feed some gigantic space beast. Surely that can’t be good for the galaxy. They do not have feelings or empathy to relate to others and thus must be stopped. Or is that a human way of looking at things? You can be the bridge that teaches the Typhon how to live with other creatures.

Do you kill Alex because he manipulated you? Born into a world you thought was yours, with someone else’s memories being recreated as they are their own. This isn’t different than the Typhon, who feed on others’ minds, both species prey on those weaker but at least the Typhon are honest about it. You couldn’t trust Alex in the simulation, and you shouldn’t trust him now.

Do you kill Alex because humans are clearly the weaker species and survival of the fittest is the rule of the galaxy? It was hard to stay alive on Talos 1. Fighting the Typhon  left you desperate and out of breath – until you acquired Typhon powers. It became clear that the Typhon can’t be stopped, and you will help them solidify their place as the galaxy’s apex predator. After all, you were a Typhon all along.

Do you choose whatever you choose because you do not care? Live, die, these creatures are at your whim and chaos is the name of the game. Whatever happens – happens – and it is no concern of yours.

Initially, I felt that being able to choose to kill Alex was strange because I spent so much of the game saving people. I chose to shake his hand and tear it up with him “like in old times.” – insinuating that part of his sibling was inside me, the Typhon. Perhaps part of the human neuromod mapped onto my Typhon brain was Morgan’s. Even after I made the choice, I kept thinking back on this decision.

In the Dishonored games, our character;s morality is made obvious after each mission with the chaos score system. The state of the world at the end is directly affected by the choices Corvo or Emily make. These are characters with backstories and motivations hinted at by the game narrative. In Prey, Morgan Yu is a blank state both in terms of memory and personality which allows for more projection from the player. In Dishonored, we choose the fate of Dunwall and Karnaca in binary fashion. This is presented upfront in the games and from the beginning you can decide how to play. Prey hides this from us until the very end when it tells us it was not ever about saving Talos 1. Prey evaluates us on all of our choices and reflects what kind of person the player is, it is about what kind of person “Morgan” is.

Even though I had spent the game saving most of the humans and generally being helpful, I did use Typhon neuromods to get alien powers. My reasoning was initially because I wanted to turn into a tea-cup but later it made dominating the Typhon in combat much easier. I didn’t care about their culture or if they had one, or that they were creatures of sorts that might have no idea what they are doing to the humans on the space stations. It is possible I would have chosen to kill Alex after finding out I was a Typhon after all.

Personally, the one reason I could see myself choosing to kill him was because he had made my experience in Talos 1 a lie. Like players who didn’t like the ending because the choices didn’t matter and so none of it was “real”. Or as real as a game could be anyway.

Feeling more human than Typhon might not be enough to not feel betrayed and manipulated. But that was not my Morgan. That was not the identity I had built through the choices in the game.

 

 

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