Here’s my one word review:
It’s very fun and I like it.
The Nintendo Switch is a triumph.
Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is a primer for the state of science today. But at the heart of book lies a core belief and explanation for poetic naturalism. Just what is poetic naturalism? Here’s Carroll in an interview with WIRED’s Eric Niiler:
Atheism is a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea about how the world is. Naturalism is a counterpart to theism. Theism says there’s the physical world and god. Naturalism says there’s only the natural world. There are no spirits, no deities, or anything else. Poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world. The fact that the underlying laws of physics are deterministic and impersonal does not mean that at the human level we can’t talk about ideas about reasons and goals and purposes and free will. So poetic naturalism is one way of reconciling what we are sure about the world at an intuitive level. A world that has children. Reconciling that with all the wonderful counterintuitive things about modern science.
For a layman, Carroll breaks down today’s fundamentals of science to painstaking detail (outside of the use of equations) and builds them back up to something simpler that speak to the justification for poetic naturalism. He dives into physics, philosophy, quantum mechanics, biology, and many other fields. He tackles many questions that are asked from casual daydreamers and the depths of Sci-Fi alike. And it all comes wrapped in an idea that there lies something between atheism and theism.
Carroll strives to pit Science against Theism on an even playing field, or one that’s as level as possible; Modern science challenging the ever shrinking God of the gaps. But for all of Carroll’s scientific professing, he is careful never to discount just how vast the gaps remain. By sheer virtue of his lessons on Bayesian credences, he never shuts out theism entirely, always leaving the door unlocked and possibly cracked open.
We’ll see that the existence of life provides, at best, a small boost to the probability that theism is true—while related features of the universe provide an extremely large boost for naturalism.
Chapters and sections read like deep troughs with a steep decline. As soon as the reader is introduced to a concept, Carroll has them barreling down a chasm at breakneck speed, only to bring them up for air in the last few paragraphs. I understood hardly a lick of the depths, but that’s okay. The meat lies in the simplified 30-percent of the pages. I took the rest as hard scientific justification, in the event the reader has any doubts as where Carroll comes up with these notions.
After 433 pages, Core Theory and quantum mechanics and multiverses and up quarks and down quarks are still a mystery to me. But what I did learn — what I can say without a shadow of a doubt — is with as much as we’ve discovered of the Universe, we still know very little. Maybe that will always be the case. Maybe there will always exist the God of the gaps with those gaps shrinking exponentially, but never quite stamped out.
What does it take to be moved— deeply and profoundly moved? Stories of grandeur can impress ideas of excellence and glory. Stories of adventure can make us yearn for thill and mystery. Stories of family can reflect the importance of closeness and bonding.
Real life events certainly have the power to move. Novels tackled this ages ago. Music has transformed the world around us for eons. Film figured it out approximately 100 years ago. And within the past 20 years, video games have begun tugging at heartstrings, imbuing wonder, and leaving players in awe.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the latest and possibly last chapter of suave treasure-hunting protagonist Nathan Drake’s adventures, is certainly not the first video game to entertain the idea that some titles in the medium are closer to film than they are to chess. There have been countless titles that have made the case that the narrative in today’s video games outshines most summer blockbusters— BioShock (2007), Final Fantasy VII (1997), The Last of Us (2013), and Mass Effect (2007-2012) to name a few. As early as 1995, in an abrupt turn of events, players watched the heroic and noble Mega Man turn against Asimov’s first law during the finale of Mega Man 7, holding his Mega Buster up to a surrendering Dr. Wily, exclaiming, “I am more than a robot!! Die Wily!!” While not the most striking piece of dialog, it was a profound moment for a video game at the time.
The Uncharted franchise’s namesake is in big action during gameplay. Gigantic and tightly choreographed sequences unfold while the player is still in control. To this day, it’s something that feels inconceivable to players who grew up with Super Mario Bros. Over the course of four games within the franchise, developer Naughty Dog doubled-down on the technically awe-inspiring moments with each title; be it scaling train cars that are dangling off the side of a mountain (Uncharted 2) or fist-fighting in a battered and rapidly descending cargo plane (Uncharted 3). Story beats and character development didn’t quite take a backseat, but they were never quite at the forefront of the games. By the third entry, Naughty Dog pushed the predefined story boundaries, but was never able to outshine the action.
After Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog stepped away from the franchise, putting it’s effort into a brand new story. The Last of Us delivered what is arguably the most affecting story from a AAA title yet. A survival story of two individuals, the grizzled Joel, who’s young daughter was killed during confused military frenzy amongst a virus-outbreak, and Ellie, a young girl with the only known immunity to the virus. Over the course of the game, the two strangers argue, protect, bond, and fight together, building a relationship unseen in video games prior.
The lessons learned by Naughty Dog and the development of The Last of Us are clear as day in Uncharted 4. Never has the Uncharted franchise felt so human and connecting. While Uncharted 3 swung for the fences, it never quite delivered. But with every turn of a corner, every new setting, every chapter, Uncharted 4’s story beats like a racing heart. Be it the relationship between Nathan and his brother Sam, Nathan and his wife Elena, Sam and veteran treasure hunter and father-figure Sully, or even the tales of Captain Avery and the lost pirate city Libertalia being explored through the game. Every one of these stories delivers and ultimately delivers a whole greater than its parts.
Nathan’s struggle between leaving a life of adventure and exploration for a life of normalcy and marriage is remarkably easy to connect with. The unknown and freedom of one’s past challenged by stability and relationships is something most struggle with. To add, the power of reigniting a relationship with a plundering brother once thought dead adds a significant amount of weight to Nathan’s difficult decisions and ultimately mistakes. Uncharted 4 offers a surprisingly complicated web of relationships that keep the player hungry to find out what happens next. And unlike most lengthy video games, there is a beautiful simplicity to the story that is easy to come back to weeks after setting the controller down.
But what of a video game’s story if the atmosphere isn’t correct. Surely the benefit of experience a story in the medium of a video game must include visuals and music and mechanics. Suffice to say the visuals are outstanding, possibly the best a console has produced to date.
Buying into the world of Uncharted 4 takes little effort at all. Its outstanding graphical fidelity, animation, and motion-capture performance deliver convincing characters and settings. Nathan Drake is as real as any Hollywood hero. And shocking more convincing as a fully CG character than the real actors strewn about the Warcraft movie.
Not to digress into a critique of the Warcraft film, but it’s worth mentioning that Uncharted 4‘s visuals and performance are a great example of the power of strong narrative without the presence of flesh-and-bone. To put it succinctly, the game is captivating.
(While we’re on the topic and to give credit where credit is due, the photorealistic Orcs backed by stellar performances. Like Avatar before it, there are moments that are dumbfounding when one realizes what is unfolding onscreen is fake. Just look at Orgrim!)
It’s not to say that the life given to Nathan Drake by the folks at Naughty Dogs and the performance from Nolan North weren’t incredible in past entries, but there is something truly magically about how Nathan emotes and interacts in Uncharted 4 that makes him believable.
Like the story, the mechanics and fluidity of the game have slowly evolved with each iteration. While the first Uncharted title felt much like a demo of things to come, the level of polish given to the player’s controls during extraordinarily big moments feels just as amazing as it did in Uncharted 2. That said, the overuse of sliding down gravelly paths and using Nate’s new grappling hook felted a bit tired halfway through the game. The repetition of these interactions has a tendency to make story feel slower than it should at time and almost like the player hasn’t progressed much. Slow motion via repetition. There are even moments when Nathan pokes fun at having to slide or grapple again and again.
But if the mechanics are the worst part, and they certainly are not even mildly bad, what of the music? The three previous entries found composer Greg Edmonson at the helm, defining Uncharted‘s iconic and booming theme. Edmonson’s work gave a lift to the sense of adventure and thrill. But like the story, the time Naughty Dog took away from the franchise seemed to open the possibility for new talent and new perspectives. And for a story so strong and rife with conflict, the timbre had to change.
In comes Henry Jackman, composer most recognized by his work on Captain Americas The Winter Soldier and Civil War, X-Men: First Class, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. The breadth of Jackman’s work shines in Uncharted 4, adding dark and somber themes to an otherwise epic adventure, namely the heartbreaking “A Normal Life” theme that is sprinkled throughout interactions between Nathan and Elena, displayed most effectively during Chapter 17: For Better or Worse. It’s enough to bring you to your knees.
There isn’t enough that can be said about the impact of the Uncharted franchise. It reimagined what it means to interactive with a digital experience. It’s captivating performances and writing gave life to characters typically seen as avatars. The franchise is a masterclass in the possibilities and power of video games. Most of all, it showed the importance of not rest on your laurels and how care and patience can evolve greatness into something truly special. If this really is the end of the Uncharted franchise, I’m sad to see it go. But better to burn out than to fade away. And what better to burn out on a note that genuinely moves technology, narrative, and players.
Thanks for one hell of a ride, Nate and the Naughty Dog team.
It goes without saying Firewatch is an aesthetic marvel. Just look look at the gameplay screenshot above. Better yet, head to firewatchgame.com and get your fill. But it’s what lies within the exterior beauty that Firewatch shines.
Without taking the Up-like blow out of the first act, the game finds protagonist Henry having taken a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Henry communicates with Delilah, a veteran lookout in another watchtower, via radio through choice-driven narrative queues (à la The Walking Dead, Choose Your Own Adventure). Shortly after the opening, the two find themselves tangled up in a self-provoked mystery.
Throughout my play-through, I became so concerned for Henry’s safety that my own certainty about the wilderness and its role as a haven for the unknown and unexplainable began to fulfill itself. However, it’s at the mercy of a few cheap tricks that this unsettlement is allowed to creep in. One early trick creates the suspicion that something bigger is going on and you’re the only one not in on the secret. Another instills the fear of looking down or turning a corner; two actions that become impossible to avoid and occur at breakneck frequency throughout the entirety of the game. Campo Santo makes it impossible not to feel anxious.
The answer to the game’s mystery will be unsatisfying, but only because this is the wrong puzzle. I’d argue the real answer is to why the game’s mystery is unsatisfying. Therein lies the revelation. Ultimately, Firewatch shows that one’s own ego and neurosis can overshadow important details; that our narcissism and persistence to seek the puppet-masters blur what is right in front of us. Without doubt, an interesting mystery unfolds for Henry and Delilah; but it’s an exposé in egoism that lies at the heart of Firewatch.
I’m being torn apart. Did I like it? Yes. Did I love it? No. Did it live up to the hype? Maybe. My pros/cons list weighs heavily on the dark side, but the experience steers the franchise toward the light.
The film opens with a fleet of stormtroopers storming a village. In one particular instance, as one goes down, another, FN-2187 (quite obviously Finn for anyone who’s seen the trailers), without firing a shot, has a sudden change of heart about being part of a war-machine. Is this his first fight? Was the death of that particular comrade important? The audience would be better served if we understood the bond between Finn and the downed stormtrooper, or if there was some understanding that this was FN-2187’s first fight.
Not to mention that Finn’s introduction is mixed with a barrage of other main characters Poe, BB-8, Kylo Ren, and Captain Phasma within the first ten minutes. This all felt like a lot to digest.
It’s not until Rey’s introduction where the film begins to establish its language and context. The pace slows, allowing the audience to grasp the stakes through osmosis rather than force-feeding. Though, it’s not hard to feel enchanted when Rey is on-screen. Daisy Ridley is the star of the show and only becomes larger when backed by “Rey’s Theme”; John Williams’s breathtaking score for our new hero. (Fear not. BB-8 is a marvel!)
On the topic of characters, I never got on-board with Finn. He feels more like a Star Wars uber-fan living out his fantasies than true-blue Star Wars lore. But maybe that’s because Finn is the only character that doesn’t really have a Star Wars legacy identity. Rey acts as a brilliant blend of Han and young Obi-Wan while Poe waxes a bit “pilot” Luke. If anything, Finn’s overly comedic performance rings closer to Jar-Jar than any other legacy character. That’s not to discount everything John Boyega brings to the table, namely his performance in the Takodana bar and his lightsaber battle against Kylo Ren. But in large part, I began to dread his appearance on-screen. I would have gladly traded the abundance of Finn for the lack of Leia’s most talented pilot, Poe.
If there was one thing The Force Awakens is not short on, it’s dog-fights. Battles overall, for that matter. However, while dog-fights are a boon for a Star Wars fan, not one of these takes place in space! What’s a Star Wars movie without a war amongst the stars?! (This may not be the fairest gripe, but it’s an observance worth bringing up.) In any case, ground combat felt fantastic, with practical explosions and the bodies of stormtroopers flying about; CG effects seemingly only used for blaster fire.
And while I loved the idea of J.J. making a point to bring back a heavy use of practical-effects, they began to feel heavy handed at times. Jakku’s village felt like it paid great homage while Takodana’s bar felt exhaustive. Other instances of aliens and droids painted some scenes well. But in large part, it all felt a bit too much. Excessive b-role and cuts to random characters feel strewn about just for fan service and proof that they were committed to the idea of practical-effects. (I wonder if my fretting is just jarring reaction to the modern reliance of CG…?)
As heavy-handed as the practical-effects were, the allure they have been brought on to create is thrown out when two major characters appear as CG constructs. Like Finn’s out-of-place character, these characters took me out of the world that J.J. had constructed and put me back into the tried-and-tired trope of major CG reliance.
On the flip side, the lack of large scale CG set pieces and battlegrounds made this epic feel eerily small. Each scene feels like a specific set piece rather than a fleshed-out world. (There are similar scenes in The Hobbit films and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) Suffice to say, most of the sets (and some of the acting and scene transitions) made the movie feel like a stage-play.
For all of the negative I can bring up about The Force Awakens, I cannot help but think about the good, the warm, and the fresh. This is why I’m torn. (Okay, add Kylo Ren’s struggle to the list. It was extremely human and relatable on multiple levels.)
Good: It’s a Star Wars film that feels like an Abrams film. While the characters, design, and story feel fairly true to the Star Wars universe, the film feels far removed from the language Lucas established with the original trilogy and certainly the prequels. So much so that I still feel like I’m having to check my opinion against what I’ve come to know and expect of Star Wars films, even the great ones. (Am I bothered simply because what I expect of this universe feels alien? Is that bad? Am I guarding myself from another Phantom Menace folly?) This is a good thing. “Enhancements” aside, we will always have the original trilogy and it’s refreshing to see a new take on this universe.
Warm: There are call-backs and nods. A lot of them. Maybe too many of them. But every single one feels like a treat that I apparently can’t get sick of. (They felt more natural the second time around.) Say what you will of The Hobbit films, it was nice to see the cast back together. The same feeling is exuded in The Force Awakens. Even more so. Some of the references feel forced, but that is too be expected. I imagine the audiences experiencing the Star Wars saga (well, episodes IV-VII) straight through or for the first time won’t be as phased by the obvious.
Fresh: The final scene. Our reunion with Luke opens the story in ways that The Empire Strikes Back had no other option but to fill in after the fact. Never has there been a Star Wars film where the future was so foreign to the audience but so presumably mapped by writers. (The script for Episode VIII was finished before the release of Episode VII. Unprecedented for a non-prequel Star Wars film. ) We know bigger things are coming and I’d argue that Episode VII simply exists to whet our appetites. That’s not to say it’s a cliffhanger, but through Luke, the mysteries and color of today’s Star Wars universe are on the cusp of being revealed.
[EDIT]: Added paragraph about set pieces and stage-plays.
1/1/16: Edited and revised after second viewing.
“Cheri…! How do you spell ‘Sierra?'” a question I would often shout to my step-mother from an adjacent room. Their PC housed a game called Quest for Glory. Somewhere between my limited knowledge of MS-DOS and the English language, I would ask and re-ask this question, eventually running the prompt C:\sierra\glory.exe. To add to the naivety, I didn’t learn how to intiate mouse control until my dad’s friend (and King’s Quest junkie) relayed the message to me. For years, I had been playing a point-and-click without, well, a mouse to point and click.
Nonetheless, today is different; though, not entirely far off. I’ve completed the first chapter of the King’s Quest reboot on PS4 without a mouse. And boy, did it feel great.
At heart, I’m a Quest for Glory kid. In any case, my memory serves King’s Quest far from simplistic and innocent, but dashed with bits of humor and challenge. That said, the personally and puzzles in the reboot feel more realized and extemely fitting.
Princess Bride notes ring hard and true, from a grandfather’s storytelling to a cast including Wallace Shawn (and Christopher Lloyd, not to be left without mention!), but it’s all a lovely addition and somewhat apt recalling of the memories of playing the (or those in spirit to the) original game. The humor and trials dance between easy no-brainer to truly challenging exercises of “wit.” And while most of the game’s writing and development is close to that of a better than average Disney film with clever storytelling devices strewn about, there is one surprising and appreciated moment that brings some weighty emotion; its effect ringing subtly through the remainder of the chapter.
The first of five chapters, A Knight to Remember, resolves with satisfaction. The art direction is gorgeous, animations fluid, and the writing is sure to land a few square chuckles with all age groups. The game comes off as a Disney movie that you play. Not to mention it took much longer than I had expected to complete. While I’m one for concise games these days, it felt appropriate that King’s Quest had more to ofter than anticipated. This coming after viewing a score of 6.5 from one of my favorite game reviewers.
King’s Quest is a worthy play and I am eagerly looking forward to the next chapter.
The beauty of brevity. The pleasure of paradox.
Ten puzzles. Ten gorgeous, mind-bending, paradoxical puzzles. This is a video game you will complete. In fact, Monument Valley may the first video game many will complete. This is by design.
“With so many games, people never see the end, because there’s so many hours of gameplay, we wanted to make a game where you see the whole thing.” – Dan Gray, Monument Valley Executive Producer in an interview with Polygon
As a child, completing a game was a triumph. This was not due to lack time, rather heightened difficulty. Personally, my choice in games was largely based on franchise rather than quality. In turn, this provided me with a library of poorly designed “classics” such as Sonic The Hedgehog and Battletoads. Hours were spent replaying games from Stage 1-1 on to the point where I was forced to power down the console. Check points were few and far between. Save files were non-existent. When asking a video game funding parent if their child had completed any, you’d be hard pressed to receive a positive answer.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this notion has persuaded many audiences away from video games entirely. If they cannot be finished, what is the point?
Now in my late-20s, working 10-12 hours per day, fitting in crucial exercise for a metabolism that seems all but lost, weekends spent running errands that have stacked up, and nurturing a relationship with my soon-to-be wife, I find very little free time to invest in my love for gaming. The minute-to-minute time I do find is spent reading pieces on Polygon or IGN, sharing these with the greater social media landscape. Echoed in Ben Kuchera’s post “Parenthood makes gaming better by making time your most precious resource,” the value of time skyrockets as we age. The pastimes of yesteryear begin to seem wasteful, yet we strive to retain a connection to our childhood identity. After all, it is the foundation of our dreams. It is who we are and where we are headed.
Since playing Final Fantasy X (recently remastered for PS3 and PSVita) in high school, I have searched for games with rich story. Until the rise of indies, these only seemed attainable through 15-40 hour bouts of character and world building, effectively turning a game into an interactive novel. Fitting one of these epics into my day-to-day has become a near impossible feat.
This is where Monument Valley succeeds. Piling mass amounts of beautiful art and ambitious puzzle design into a bite sized experience is the video game equivalent of a decadent cake. Too much is overbearing. Not enough is unsatisfying. There is a balance.
Monument Valley immediately finds it’s footing through a rich color palette, a soothing soundtrack, and delicate animation. The player understands this world and its inhabitants. The story is used as a mysterious additive that comes secondary to exploring the gorgeous worlds built on paradoxical M. C. Esher design.
Puzzle solving through the discovery of paradox makes the player feel empowered and unstoppable. The experience of breaking illogical boundaries through new perspectives gives players the opportunity to live out their fantasies; it offers a sensation of seeing The Matrix or experiencing the paradox of Inception first-hand.
As the game progresses, the solutions to impossible geometry become more and more difficult to discover. It was not uncommon for me to consciously forget my knowledge of the real world and instead fall back on memories of mazes and Puzzlemania books of my youth. As the difficulty builds, the frustration of adulthood becomes more apparent. Our desire to know how things work is challenged to near breaking point. Even those with a basic understanding of code, animation, and design will scratch their heads and ask of the developers, “how did they do that?” Somehow, the player is able to move the on-screen character through paths that did not previously exist until viewing the vertical world from a different angle. Genius.
It seems the urgency for time has permeated the minds of the developers at ustwo. Monument Valley’s 2-3 hour play-through is the perfect amount of that decadent cake. The experience of Monument Valley is sure to please both the hardcore gamer and casual audiences alike. In fact, it is the perfect example of the importance of short and sweet, possibly introducing these polarizing audiences to a new approach in game design as seen in Journey, The Room, or EDGE. And like that decadent cake, Monument Valley’s length, design, and puzzles are mesmerizing enough to feel satisfied yet haunting enough to warrant constant craving. If DLC is abound, sign me up.
Monument Valley is available exclusively on iOS (iTunes)
Originally published on TheStarrList.com