These past twelve months has seen a resurgence in my appreciation of the wider gaming culture, primarily from an artistic merit and point of view with a greater respect for the artistry and development process of some of the gaming’s biggest and more renowned titles. Beginning with a somewhat, waning and apprehensive attitude towards the platform itself as a legitimate artistic medium I conclude my year with a renewed appreciation for the culture and influence beyond a specific software title or hardware but as a form of entertainment that has bled out into the wider cultural appreciation. From a legitimate artistic exhibition that showcased the talents of the development teams and the political maturity games software finds itself charting, to a return visit to one of my favourite global stores and concluding with a behemoth release that in truth continues to both impress and frustrate in equal measures.
I’ll concede at the beginning of the year my attitude and belief in gaming software and culture had hardened somewhat in my view of this being somewhat of an insular past time that detracted from more cordial and socially outgoing activities. My own personal gaming habits over the winter period tend to rely on familiar, Football Manager 2018 taking the majority of my free team as I attempted to guide my beloved Leeds United to the promised land. Dispersed amongst my talents as a renowned coach was another play through of the first Pillars of Eternity, a spiritual successor to the grid based role-playing game Baldur’s Gate 2. On the horizon only one title was of immediate interest, given my appreciation and enjoyment of its predecessors that was of course Far Cry 5 from Ubisoft and its somewhat controversial take on the American north-west culture but of course, on the horizon, the latest behemoth release from Rockstar Games in Red Dead Redemption casting its shadow on many a schedule. From memory, these were the two releases of 2018 and at that moment my only intended immersion into gaming culture I intended to make.
Far Cry 5
The fifth chapter, excluding the various expansions and spin-off titles, set in the American North West state of Montana, from Ubisoft Far Cry 5 launched and was released to generally positive reviews with a refreshing transition away from the isolated mountain location of 4 and the island setting of 3. Although still constrained by artificial measures to ensure you don’t break the walls of your playground it was a genuinely interesting exploration at first through this different aspect of America that for once dispensed of exploring, once more New York or approximations there of. I’ll concede that last Ubisoft game I had experienced before this Wildlands and as discussed when we came together as a gaming team we were left with a visually impressive but fundamentally empty and repetitive broken gaming experience. With Far Cry 5 from my perspective you have the sense the developers had taken aboard certain aspects of feedback from the launch of Wildlands to ensure at launch they had a competent solid game, for me personally it lacked some of the magic, some of the spark of creativity I fondly recall from playing 3, for me the zenith of the series to date.
Having become somewhat politically aware of the past year to events taking place in the United States you do start to see some of the undertones creeping into the titles in places, others inserted with somewhat less subtlety. With Far Cry 5’s somewhat conservative setting certainly there was commentary on aspects of gun laws and the purpose of the 2nd Amendment with a slightly on the nose homage, or critique of Trumps ‘MAGA’ message however equally a look at religious indoctrination and the conflict of faith vs science so I’ll concede this is open to interpretation. The sole bleed through that became evident early on was the mission structure carried over, or more accurately evolved from Wildlands with the necessity to take out the lieutenants, the family members before you faced the final mission. Not a new concept in any way but its presentation style echoed for me personally the direction of Wildlands to the extent you could easily believe this to be their next direction of travel. Having dabbled briefly with the latest Assassin’s Creed title you do get the impression for the foreseeable future this is their chosen direction.
Quite simply I spent a considerable time with this title and came away with the final impression this was a fairly safe, largely repetitive game sharing many traits, strengths and weakness as found in the studios other major franchises and titles. Subverted on occasion with the use of maps and signs replacing the trope of the towers however on the nose with its web of enemies presentation style, a map with a vast collection of hooverable collectables and repetitive enemies spawning and showing little intelligence or challenge. And with the addition of companions perhaps a tad over powered the threat really wasn’t there a lot of the time, compounds easily conquerable with air support and a rogue bear causing maximum carnage. I enjoyed the game, but didn’t come away feeling as a title it had fundamentally changed or challenged my understandings of gaming in general. It was a solid, safe Ubisoft game and one I am content now to put to rest for the foreseeable future. Of course my interests would soon be challenged by another Ubisoft game that whilst a few years old now did present a different challenge and experience, one that would have an impact on me beyond the initial play through.
Art Books and Reviews
For all the merits of gaming as a medium somewhere that message tends to be diluted, often in the mass hysteria of the actions of the community but more generally in its presentation in pursuit of the immediate satisfaction of its users. Having my own needs sated somewhat with the vast open world Ubisoft titles of Far Cry 5 and as an impulse buy, Syndicate I was satisfied to consider my gaming needs met until the Autumn but then felt creatively inspired to visit a few of the art books received as gifts the previous Christmas. Perfect as table top curiosities but in actuality a wealth and abundance of material and research that shows the depth of these studios and the efforts made to construct these worlds to such detail that in actuality you begin to take the environments for granted somewhat. Which is to say you accept the corridors of an alien space station to the same degree you might accept the world of Middle Earth when the attention to detail is so great. The first of these reviews was a supporting art book picked up from Forbidden Planet and amazingly still available for a bargain price of £4.99 for the game Alien Isolation. Admittedly as a title the game was quite stretched in its narrative and did tend to stretch and over stays its welcome towards the end but purely from the aesthetic it was a remarkably detailed and amazingly planned book charting the course and creation of the characters and environments.
Continuing with a sci-fi theme my eye turned to another relatively cheap purchase again from Forbidden Planet with the The Art of Dead Space, another book looking at one of the seminal releases from the previous generation. As noted during the review of the book itself there was a notable evolution in the artistry and development that went into these late generation games with a significant amount of art and sketches to support these releases. Whilst they have become more common during this generation as with any form of artistic medium certainly appreciation should be given where its due to more classic titles, and I feel there was a huge amount of work that went into these games that deserved to be showcase. With Dead Space there was a clear source of inspiration for a number of the games ideas from the Alien franchise itself to other classic titles and even films with nods to John Carpenter in the form of the creatures themselves. I enjoyed Dead Space at the time for what it was but coming across this book a number of years later provided an opportunity to go back and explore the art work in developing the games central protagonist as well as the environments of the ship and the planet below. Yes there are clear nods, homages, borrowing going on from other franchises but it would be a disservice to suggest there was no originality in this title. A great deal of development went into this game that rightly was showcased with this release.
Through exploring and photographing elements of these books to write these reviews it sparked a new creative desire to go deeper into gaming culture which had always been and was the inspiration for undertaking the Around The Bonfire project. I may not necessarily enjoy the collecting aspect of gaming or looking for the more obscure titles or niche releases but certainly, if only from an artistic perspective I gain pleasure and enjoyment for looking at the sketches, the art work, the evolution of design from a simple pencil drawing to the final realised character. And whether this was the world of Horizon or the infected waste lands of America in The Last of Us during this year it was these books that inspired my creativity to an extent and made me want to delve further into the creation aspect as opposed to simply viewing a game as an almost disposable commodity I had perhaps viewed them as previously. With that view-point in mind we came to the summer and an ambitious project that would occupy me for a large portion of the year.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Photo Shoot
Spanning the course of the past six months the inspiration for this project began a number of years ago when I experienced one of my first, genuine sense of immersion in a video game whilst exploring the city of Rome during Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and being stopped in my tracks at the attention to detail Ubisoft had shown in bringing the ruins to life I had explored on many occasions. With a new-found sense of curiosity and faith in gaming I decided to see whether I could experience this once more with a game set in my home city of London. And so armed with a heavily discounted copy of Syndicate and my trusty DSLR I booted up this game onto my Playstation and began by playing the title as a virtual tourist, capturing a number of images around the London of the cities more iconic landmarks and buildings from St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey. The intention wasn’t born out of malice or an attempt to shame the developers or title but a genuine curiosity just how closely did this slightly aged title faithfully recreate the city I call home in detail and scope.
These titles were always advertised during the development as being a compressed presentation of these buildings and cities, not a faithful reproduction and as such you do pick up in places where short cuts and compressions have taken place. But certainly with some of the more iconic buildings you do also realise just how closely the teams came to recreating these buildings and locations and evoking a nostalgic sense of familiarity and longing for home. Of course there were short cuts, some areas created entirely from imagination and inspiration of city no longer recognisable or consistent with the Victorian era design as envisioned. But equally, some places like the Cathedral and Tower were incredibly details and visualised, the level and attention to detail remarkable. The intention as said before was always to see if the world of London as seen through Syndicate could inspire the same emotional response as Rome when I first played through Brotherhood, having spent the past 6 months contrasting these views points so meticulously, I can confidently say, as shown, when stopping to take in these landmarks I do appreciate the attention to detail and commitment to creating a virtual playground I call home.
Nintendo World New York
In September I returned to the big apple for largely familial reasons but of course, as ever the opportunity to revisit Nintendo World New York was a temptation I couldn’t resist for a largely, specific superficial reason and the quest to pick up and purchase a Zelda T-Shirt I had missed the chance to buy when I first visited NYC many years back. The store as ever is a treasure trove of Nintendo merchandise and memorabilia archiving the history of the company through its presentation of consoles across history, from the simplistic yet durable original Gameboy through to the Switch console with an appropriate level of games and material to enrich even the most sceptical of gaming collectors spirits and hearts. My enthusiasm for gaming culture has largely come about through exploring and embracing the wider developmental world and experience beyond the specific titles, the art books that showcase the evolution from concept to realisation. The musical soundtracks that bring these worlds to life and from the vantage point of Nintendo, the sole focus and dedication to shape and craft a perfectly realised and polished world that whilst may be off-putting to some is a solid product that deserves to be showcased for all its merits.
One of the reasons I was eager to return to this store was the overall experience you find when entering its premises, the bold and vibrant colours of its mascots and characters envisioned through the large and welcoming statues of Mario and Luigi to the more obscure but equally memorable Donkey Kong and for the more youthful visitors Pikachu on the top floor. It’s evident Nintendo understands the power of the brand it has craft and the attraction of the characters and worlds to those that perhaps long to revel in the familiar and welcoming nature of the past time as opposed to the confrontational and challenging titles of more powerful consoles and software. I enjoyed, immensely wandering around, taking pictures of the characters, talking to the staff who were around, looking at the various consoles on display, the battle damaged Gameboy, the various mementos such as the Master Sword with the Zelda merchandise. Quite often Sony and Microsoft tend to follow in the steps of Nintendo in regards to its hardware, a store from these two giants would be a fascinating concept to explore.
Of course I do concede beyond the general experience and as alluded to the principle motivation to return to this store when visiting this city was the fabled, Link in Central Park shirt I had missed buying last time I was here in favour of the Mario on 5th Avenue top I wear with pride still today. I’ll admit my main issue at the time was style of Link, adopting the appearance first seen in the Wind Waker titles that disappointed me as a fan of the N64 era of titles and appearance. I like my Link as real as possible, not cartoonish. But once my pain faded and I came to peace with the title my appreciation, and angst for missing this shirt grew so of course when presented with the opportunity to return and pick up this shirt I had to oblige. The Nintendo store is home to a vast array of merchandise and items covering a swathe of their collection and franchises from Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Pokemon, the most ardent collector and enthusiast will find something to satisfy their needs. Objectively perhaps a far greater focus is placed upon their more famous franchises such as Mario, Zelda and Pokemon with a vast amount of the retail floor space devoted to these games and history over some of the smaller more niche titles such as Metroid and Fire Emblem but in truth, the appeal is driven from these characters such as Mario and Link so its a minor observation but not necessarily a complaint.
Video Games: Design/Play/Disrupt Exhibit
Quite often and as observed during my initial review of this exhibit there is a temptation to marginalize and look down upon gaming as a hobby and past time, perhaps because given the nature of the experience where pleasure is quite often derived in youth and carried forward through the years it can be seen to be a juvenile experience. Certainly a conceit I would accept or put forward is on occasion the behaviour and actions of both developers and the community at large this certainly does hold merits, from the Gamergate controversy that took place to the full-scale embrace of identity politics and agenda setting so divisive in politics and society at large. Here is where perhaps I would offer a contrarian view, that as a medium of art and entertainment video games and gaming is still relatively ‘young’ in contrast to for example film as the last grace artistic source to grow into general cultural acceptance, I discount literature and music as they have been present for long before either of these new contenders. What frustration I feel when I hear the phrase ‘games are for kids’ is the general ignorance and misconceptions people hold towards this form of entertainment, dismissing of genuinely moving and deep forms of art work both visually, from an audio perspective for example using sight and sound to present a moving experience.
When I heard about this exhibit I was cautiously optimistic given the nature of the museum as a bastion of art and design of a growing recognition of this medium as an engaging methodology of presentation in contrast to other institutions that may have pursued their own agenda. I wrote extensively about the design aspect initially, gaming is actively evolving its style and content in a way film as a contrasting medium has become fairly static in recent years with a large harmonization. Certainly the message and content trends can on occasion become repetitive but as a platform, having the capability for example to fully utilise 3D in recent years has certainly challenged the existing flat screen presentation in a way that has been forgotten now by the larger screen studios. Whats exciting, for this particular form of gaming it can only grow and become a more interactive experience as technology improves. Equally, in terms of the cost of development one of the great joys of the exhibit was the demonstration and ability to experience smaller independent titles that has emerged in recent years as the cost of barriers to entry have reduced significantly with free development software readily available specifically for the purpose of allowing emerging talent both domestically and internationally to bloom.
The political aspect of the exhibit was perhaps a little more divisive in terms of its content pursuing and showcasing an agenda with a slight left leaning tone. As commented in my initial review, the sound bites, information and agenda presented were consistently of one political ideology over another, which in turn served well to explain that view-point and approach but my personal preference would have been to have a more balanced message shown. Regardless, it was a bold decision and shows gaming as a medium is growing both in stature and its ability to engage and showcase stories and themes unimaginable a decade ago but now commonly expected of these larger marquis releases. Or to put it another way, as a society and community who champions these titles we can no longer accept games released and set in the race hit era of America for example and not comment or go into detail about this part of history where motion pictures will readily challenge preconceptions and narrative. But just as a highly politicised, sole narrative theme be that in film or literature is divisive and off-putting so the wish to ensure gaming pursues a balanced tone going forward is so important.
Resident Evil 7 (Ongoing)
I first experienced this title through the prism of the Playstation VR goggles a number of months before its release attending a demonstration event and being able to enjoy a pre built environment that showcased the technology and I was admittedly incredibly impressed by the immersion factor if slightly underwhelmed by the graphical output at such a close distance, one of the limitations and detrimental factors of the hardware at present. Should the hardware become more readily available both in terms of price and also content I am more interested in then perhaps it becomes a more viable purchase but for now with only a handful of titles and more pressing needs for what disposable income I have I opted to buy this title after its release and with the return or use of a first person perspective when a little more time had passed. I was a great fan of the style and presentation of the fourth and fifth title, and whilst the sixth effectively acted as a wrecking ball to that particular lineage adopting this view-point whilst engaging to a degree was a bit of a stretch for me to accept. But I had only heard great things and so I came to purchase this title for a heavily discounted price to experience the world of Resident Evil in its current iteration.
Unfortunately, from a timing perspective it was more to ensure I had a copy for the price I was happy to pay as the very real shadow of Red Dead was looming over the window of time. None the less I have installed the game and what I have experienced so far is enjoyable enough with some genuine moments of apprehension and tension as the changed perspective does elicit a more personal response. As a result the combat for me personally takes somewhat of a back seat compared to the more action orientated fourth and fifth titles which were more bombastic shooters with ever more powerful guns and weaponry. This return to more visceral scares and jumps was a, welcome return for a survival horror title, one perhaps experienced through the VR goggles would actually be even more intense. As such, for now its a game I intend to return to once I have finished my sojourn through the old west and the world of Red Dead. And for the added fear factor in the dark months when you can truly immerse yourself in the world without the safety and comfort of the blue skies outside.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Ongoing)
One of the titles I was most looking forward to this year was the latest chapter in Rockstar’s Wild West franchise, a release that defined the cowboy genre on games consoles in the previous generation and I would humbly argue has done the same this year. Going into this title I had certain expectations and hopes but had purposefully avoided any spoilers and pre release material and was genuinely intrigued to find out how they had evolved the series into its current iteration. Largely, I would say my expectations have been met but certainly there have been challenges or view points that do need to be addressed. Primarily, to date with what I have played the pacing which very purposefully challenges you to redefine what you should expect from this game. The developers have set their pace, and have the narrative and story they want to tell, and should you wish you can enjoy this but if you seek or desire a quicker story or more instant gratification you wont enjoy this game. And quite simply you either get used to this or get off the train because there isn’t really a need to rely on word of mouth positivity for this game to succeed it will, by the sheer name and brand power alone.
Instead looking at the positives of this game the world is definitely one of its defining strengths, a genuinely beautiful world to explore with moments that cause you to pause and stare in disbelief you are in fact playing in a digital playground as opposed to experiencing the untamed Wild West. I’ll happily admit one of the main gameplay aspects was the bond between the user and the horse as discussed previously and how this would be realised. Horses in general in recent years have become as disposable across whatever open world game uses them as a function as a car or other forms of transport. I still long to care for my horse in the same way I did for Epona and just feel other games have been lacking in this regard. And in truth, so does this game to an extent with horses easily interchangeable, the garage mechanic in Grand Theft Auto replaced by a stable that serves the exact same purpose. I don’t necessarily want to feel devastated when my horse passes or is killed by a passing train or my own carelessness but I do long for that emotional connection between man and beast that has faded in recent years in the pursuit of the horse as a collectible and upgradable commodity.
The art design in Red Dead is stunning when you stop to view the landscape and learn they were very deliberately inspired by artistry on the subject. On several occasions during the game I have just paused to take in the views, one of the few times I have actively used and shared the screen capture function on the Playstation. The landscapes are incredible, and for a purely daft personal reason a great way to showcase my ever-present horse and friend Pudofax against an amazing vista. If there was ever an advert or reason to purchase and upgrade to a powerful gaming PC the possibility of what budding coders and hackers will do with this game on its eventual release onto Windows given the effects already present it is certainly an option. Thematically there are issues, pacing, narrative, even a general desire to push forward. By now I would be expecting to be making meaningful progress in the story but in truth I am gaining far more joy just going off the beaten track, on occasion fulfilling a story or mission but genuinely just finding pleasure from exploring the world, riding my horse and seeing what is out there. A title I intend to pursue into 2019.
In my gaming life I can count on one hand the number of trailers that have excited me for a game the way the announcement trailer for Civilization 6 dropped, with the use of the soundtrack from Sunshine to the use of Sean Bean, the grandeous music, the positivity and drive inspiring the best of humanity and our reach for the stars. Unfortunately, I was just a little underwhelmed with the final product. Certainly there were some great ideas, the expansion of the city states in a way that makes complete sense but at the same time just fails to function entirely accurately. This feels like a solution but one that can also be tweaked or amended slightly for any subsequent chapters, I’m willing and able to forgive them for changes here. The overall graphical presentation, for me personally was overtly simplistic in its style, going for an almost Nintendo presentation quality which should you believe their launch information was never intended but makes perfect sense that i now operates and finds itself upon the Nintendo Switch. Visually it seems to have taken a massive step back from the 5th chapter in the series, not itself a stunning array of high-definition imagery and resolutions. The game looks solid, but simplistic, and that honestly is a shame. Maybe it is trying to establish a new target audience at the expense somewhat of its existing fanbase, if so that would be a real shame.
Beyond that is the evolution into the game as a service type model with a core base experience but then multiple expansion packs and additional content all sold for a cost of course, with new races adding superfluous additions, new unit types and building units but no great advantage. The content packs have attempted to add new changes to the landscape but also the governance type and play through style. These were always present but certainly going back to four they were very much add ons or fan expansions, since the fifth title the developers have fully embraced these post launch micro and macro expansion packs to expand the game beyond the core experience. This in turn leads the user to put off purchasing the game in anticipation of a ‘Game of a Year’ edition or in this case a Black Friday bargain. I would gladly in other years have purchased this on the strength of the title alone but with the change in the visual direction and the content direction its become a ‘must have’ title but not necessarily a ‘must play now’ title.
Star Trek: Fleet Command (Deleted)
My final game of the year and perhaps the shortest ‘owned’ in my gaming collection, the newest addition to the Star Trek video game franchise that sadly represents the worst aspects of ‘Freemium’ gaming, from the entirely deceitful trailer showcasing an experience completely removed in every sense of the word from the final game and packed full of ways to buy and spend money to ‘improve’ the gaming experience. Perhaps this is the new way games are released, after all the incentive is there should you wish to spend upwards of £70 on virtual currency to buy additions and upgrades and buy your way to victory. You can of course spend that same amount on a ground breaking visual treat like Red Dead although with the additional optional currency packs available there unfortunately its a way to regain development costs. There remains the necessary evil argument for these Freemium experiences, one of the mobile titles I continue to play after a number of years is Super Cell’s Hay Day, a non intrusive simplistic farming simulator, one of the scarce few titles both my partner and I can enjoy when the mood calls for it.
In every way Fleet Command was a bitter disappointment, and that’s being respectful to the most divisive setting it could have chosen, the alternate ‘Kelvin’ timeline. Visually the game looks remarkably cheap in terms of the space exploration and ship animations, the battles between ships reduced to two circling dots, which in no way imaginable match or mirror the presentation shown in the trailers. I would hazard a guess a dominant amount of the associatory budget has been spent on licensing a total of two tracks from the recent films franchise and a similarity agreement with the actors for their likeness in the game although even then missing Chekov as portrayed by the late Anton Yelchin, whether this was as a matter of courtesy or rights issues I couldn’t say. Either way this feels the only aspect where a little money has been spent, beyond that it’s a very shallow and superficial experience and a bad showcase of the Star Trek franchise. I had it, I played with it, I deleted it, a squalid mess more concerned with selling currency packs than providing a solid gaming experience.
As we approach the coming year the slate of titles that tickle my curiosity is somewhat diminished in contrast those released this year, at least certainly from a quality perspective. Certainly Resident Evil 2 – Remake is a must have buy, I loved this title originally and if they have opted for an amended mechanic of number four I am a happy Leon. Beyond that Days Gone for its setting and Walking Dead vibe, certainly not a must have buy but open to good reviews. Anthem, looks interesting but could also be a bloated Bioware mess and have to accept following Andromeda, their track record certainly isn’t unblemished. Then there is The Division 2, whether my fatigue towards Ubisoft has subsided is another question. I enjoyed The Division and its portrayal of New York, I do love Washington so happy to go on a virtual tourist mode through the nation’s capital.
Beyond the software experience my one loose intention at the moment in the planning stage is to pick up Assassins Creed Unity, the first current generation title set in Paris and plan the logistics of doing a follow-up piece to my work in and around London. Whether this will gain traction or be a viable option I will look into, but certainly some plans for the coming year I am curious to see whether they come to fruition. Also plan to continue my book reviews as I delve into the world of Bioware with a look at their various supporting artwork books so some exciting plans for 2019. See you in the New Year.
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