The Last Of Us is the most recent release by Naughty Dog, the developers who cut their teeth on the juvenile Jak and Daxter series before graduating to the big time with their adventure series, Uncharted.  Uncharted took everything that was exciting and fun about Raiders of the Lost Ark and introduced it to a generation that had just been burned by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, giving us a flawed but loveable rogue in its hero, Nathan Drake, as well as a deep supporting cast of men and women who aided and impeded his exploits around the globe in search of mystical relics.  It was fun, but it gave us a glimpse of the mechanics that would be used in The Last Of Us.

That said, The Last Of Us has almost nothing to do with Uncharted.

Cormac McCarthy is the author of novels such as Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, that Oprah Book Club approved romp about a man and his son trying to avoid being raped or cannibalized after an unnamed apocalypse wipes out most of humanity.  To the best of my knowledge, Cormac McCarthy has never given an interview or even a statement on the rhetorical debate about whether or not video games can be art, which makes it all the more intriguing that he’s very obviously inspired what may be the greatest claim to date that they are.  The Last Of Us features a man taking a child across the country, trying at every turn not to be robbed, mutilated, raped, infected with disease, or killed.  There’s not a lot of humor involved (although there is some), it doesn’t make you feel good about what you’re doing (although it gives you very little choice but to do what you have to), and it’s not so difficult that you feel like you’ve accomplished something extraordinary (though there were times where I wanted to throw my controller across the room).

In short, The Last Of Us doesn’t really feel like a game, which makes writing about it somewhat tricky.  It’s not a movie, but it plays in my head like one, but this in itself is nothing new.  Lots of games have felt cinematic before.

What sets The Last Of Us apart is that it plays like a good movie.  A really good one, in fact.  One of the best.

In John Ford’s 1956 classic western The Searchers, a young girl is in danger and a man is sent to find her.  This man, Ethan Edwards, is not a good man.  He’s made his living and his reputation on killing, and there’s nothing particularly charming about him as he goes murdering his way through the American west to rescue a girl that he’ll kill if her honor isn’t intact.  Ethan Edwards is played by John Wayne, however, and many casual viewers of the film mistake him for a hero because of the baggage that Wayne brings to the role.  After all, if you can’t trust John Wayne, who can you trust?  For a certain generation of men in this country, John Wayne was basically our father.

Joel (no last name given, or at the very least no last name needed) is not a hero in The Last Of Us.  He’s a dead man, a man who stopped living twenty years ago when tragedy took his family away from him, as the world screamed in unsympathetic agony.  He’s a ghost, who now makes his living making other ghosts.  When he and his partner Tess find the payment for their smuggling gone missing, he is forced to protect a young girl named Ellie to get his payment back.  Ellie is not Joel’s daughter, she’s his paycheck.

Of course, because we are playing a “video game,” and because we see almost everything from Joel’s point of view, it is very easy for us to believe that his actions are always justified, that he’s a good man deep down who is dealing as best he can with an impossible situation.  This is how we lie to ourselves when we need heroes in our lives.

As they make their way from Boston to Utah, Joel and Ellie forge a bond in the blood of countless other men.  These other men would probably try to murder them if given the chance, but that chance is rarely given.  The affection Joel and Ellie feel for each other becomes very real, and very powerful, but ultimately it damns everyone it touches.

Stop reading if you haven’t finished the game.

I will not warn you again.

Ellie carries the cure to the plague that has devastated mankind, and Joel has been trying to get her safely into the care of those who could use her to bring hope to a hopeless world.  When he finds that Ellie’s immunity can only be utilized post-mortem, that he has essentially delivered her to her own doom, Joel reacts the only way we’ve seen him react to anything.

He reacts with violence.

Joel murders everyone that stands between him and Ellie, sacrificing the future of humanity for a girl he agreed to protect for money.  The money’s long gone, and the bond Joel has with Ellie is as real as any bond that any father has with their daughter, but it’s made clear that this is not what Ellie would have wanted.  Ellie chooses to believe Joel’s lies about what really happened in the hospital, but it’s clear that this fragile peace will not last.  Ellie wants to believe that Joel is a hero, and so do we.  Eventually, Ellie will realize the truth, but by then will there be any of her humanity left to care?  Joel has damned not only all of mankind, but his own soul, and possibly Ellie’s as well.  He’s not a good man, and he never was.

We believe our fathers are heroes, whether they’re our fathers by the blood in our veins or the blood on their hands.  But having a child put into those bloody hands does not instantly make you a good man.

It only gives you a reason to become one.

“What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more.”

We here at McDonald and Blank are pleased to announce the newest addition to our staff, Ms. Gabriella O’Grady.  Ms. O’Grady is the entertainment editor at BUNow.com, operating out of Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.  We asked her for a few thoughts on her newest obsession, the Nintendo 3DS title Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Some games do the same thing over and over again, copying and pasting themselves into irrelevance.  Previous iterations of the Nintendo series Animal Crossing would appeal at first, then quickly lose their luster once you had sold all your fruit or seashells.  Nintendo didn’t want to repeat itself this time, and I’m happy to say that “Animal Crossing: New Leaf” definitely has some new leaves.

You are The Villager, a stranger with an untrusting smile who rises to power as mayor of a small island.  This part takes about ten minutes.  Once reliably entrenched as ruler of all he surveys, the Villager remakes the land to suit his whims using the mighty wheel of capitalism.  Your goal is to earn a 100% approval rating from your citizens, which can be done by diving into different projects like establishing city ordinances and breaking ground on public works projects for your people.  You can establish laws that prohibit overdevelopment, protecting the lush green environment while at the same time limiting your economic growth.  You could also deregulate everything, allowing the invisible hand of business to make money at all costs, trees be damned.  You can even establish laws that dictate happiness from your citizenry, who then never complain or raise dissent.  After all, that would be against the law.

Your predecessor, a forever aging turtle by the name of Mayor Tortimer, has retired and moved to a new island.  This island can be used to play games via Wi-Fi with your friends, where you can obtain new fruits, bugs and fish for your village.  You can do this by trading with your friends, ripping them off, or flat out stealing from them.

smash bros villager tonight, you

Once you’ve stolen everything you want for your village, you’ll find that the game is more customizable than any previous iteration in the series.  In other Animal Crossing games, players could only donate to the town hall and wait for their donations to bear fruit.  In New Leaf, you choose what you want built and where you want to build it.  Fountains to commemorate your majesty?  Bridges to new lands, ripe for pillaging?  Yes and yes.

Your villagers, which include old faces from previous Animal Crossing titles as well as some new ones, can be pushed around as you see fit.  Particularly unpleasant villagers can be ensnared with your butterfly net or simply whacked with a shovel until they fall in line.  It makes that 100% approval rating slightly more elusive, but the sheer entertainment value is easily worth it.

If you think the Villager’s indomitable lust for power is going to be confined to this title alone, you are mistaken.  He will definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the new Super Smash Brothers game coming out for the Wii U and 3DS.  He uses items like his shovel, axe, or even fireworks to be an unstoppable nightmare in the game.  The villager is an interesting new evil in the world of Nintendo.

smash bros villager coming home wif me

Speaking of evil, Tom Nook returns, of course, to keep you forever in debt and collect all your bells.  Aya Kyogoku, co-director of Animal Crossing, insists that the raccoon like trickster is misunderstood.  “He’s just passionate about his business,” she writes, “He’s not like a loan shark.  He doesn’t add a handling fee or anything like that.  He can wait as long as it takes for you to pay him back.  He’s not as bad as other people might think he is.”  Tom Nook still makes players live in a tent until they can give him a down payment on a house.  A tent in monsoon season, Tom Nook?  And here I thought this time we might be friends.

Interestingly, Tom Nook is not actually a racoon at all.  He is in fact a Tanuki, a trickster beast from Japanese folklore.  The origin of the leaf motif in Animal Crossing comes from an old tale where a tanuki turns leaves into money.  Yet no matter how many leaves you present to Tom Nook, you still seem to be in his debt.

Acting as the mayor and having access to Tortimer’s Island add in hours of extra game play possibilities.  In earlier Animal Crossing titles, everything would be unlocked right off the bat.  In New Leaf, items like the coffee shop, the Happy Room Academy, and the many gardening options unlock as you go, which keeps you playing for “just one more thing.”

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is almost perfect except for one irritating detail: everything happens “tomorrow.”  Just paid off your house? Upgrades will be done tomorrow.  You finally run into Mr. Tortimer?  His island will be ready to visit tomorrow.  If I didn’t time travel in the game so often, I would throw my 3DS out of a window waiting for “tomorrow.”  I get that it is supposed to give you something to look forward to, but “tomorrow” always feels like a an arbitrary wait for what you’ve already shown me is possible.  It’s like constantly waving a twenty pound bag of candy in front of a child and telling them that they can have it “tomorrow.”  That kid is going to hate you quick.

Why do tomorrow what you can do today?  Zip it.  I’m the mayor of this island, and I want what I want, and I want it now.  At least I have a few villagers to catch in my net while I’m waiting…

smash bros villager disaster girl

Welcome to the premier edition of Conference Room: Ten Minutes, a round table session where gamers from different spectrums discuss what’s going on in the industry.  Today we are discussing the E3 presentations by Microsoft and Sony, in particular what we’ve learned about the Xbox One and the PS4.

My name is J. Paul McDonald, and with me today are ALAN CERNY, film critic for Ain’t It Cool News; returning contributor BRETT HAILE, a writer and graphic designer out of Austin Texas; TIFF FLAHERTY and BRIAN “SMITTY” SMITH, store managers for a retail chain that specializes in gaming and electronics; and WILL JOHNSTON, recent newlywed and lifelong gamer.  My questions are in bold print.

New systems were introduced by Microsoft and Sony at E3 this year, but there were wildly different responses to each.  Let me start off by asking each of you, which presentation excited you more?

Will:  The PS4.

Alan: The PS4, easily.

Smitty:  I’m pumped for both of the new consoles.  I’m a graphics whore, and they both look beautiful.

Tiff: XB1.

Brett: Xbox One.

Now Brett, you said the Xbox One.  What in particular about their presentation won you over, as someone who has traditionally been more of a fan of Sony in the past?

Brett: I have to say it came down to games for me.  I saw more exclusives that I felt like I had to play.  E3 is supposed to be about games, and I felt the “Xbone,” with Titanfall, Crimson Dragon and Killer Instinct, was the better option on that front.  Oh, and Dead Rising 3.  That looks like the zombie game I’ve always wanted.

Will, Alan, what was it about Sony’s presentation that made the PS4 more attractive to you?

Alan:  To be honest, it wasn’t just Sony’s presentation. It was Microsoft’s as well.  Sony just seemed to be treating gamers more respectfully, and I’m already a fan of PlayStation Plus.  But really it was just a bad vibe that I got from Microsoft, more than anything Sony actually did.  Plus the $100 price difference is a huge incentive.  Considering Sony had a reputation in the past for being more expensive, that was a pleasant surprise.

Will:  Both the policies and the exclusives are what swayed me, an Xbox 360 user, over to the PS4.  I also agree with Alan about the respect issue.  Microsoft seems angry at gamers for even thinking of switching to another console, whereas Sony seems to genuinely be making an attempt to better their relationships with customers and developers, especially independent developers.

The Xbox One presentation started off strong, showing a great lineup of games without even mentioning the controversial Kinect, but the issue of how it would affect used games loomed over everything.  Then the PS4 announced a much more customer-friendly model that would retail for $100 less, and suddenly people are already giving this console generation to Sony, declaring Microsoft the loser before it’s even out of the gate.  Do you think Microsoft is being bashed unfairly?

Alan:  I’m disappointed in the price tag of the Xbox One, and yes, I love buying used games.  I think it’s a great way to play a wider variety of games for an affordable amount of money, so that’s a big deal for me.

Tiff:  I think the price has a lot to do with it.  I’m not a fan of the $499.99 price for the Xbox One, especially when it had been rumored to release in the $399.99 range.  But then again, I do have a coupon I’ve been saving for $50 off, (laughs) because I just knew this was going to happen.

Will:  Perhaps the initial response to Microsoft’s conference was unfair, but based on their responses today…

Microsoft came out today and said they had a system for people who didn’t have a strong internet connection, and that it was called the Xbox 360.

Will:  Yeah, now I’d have to say that initial response seems appropriate.  Microsoft should remember they are a business, and should always stay respectful of the customer.

Brett:  I think the bashing is unfair.  Xbox rocked it with the games they showed, and then Sony came out mostly with the same stuff we’ve already seen, plus some weak looking exclusives.  Until the used game announcement (which has now been partially undone), I felt like the X1 was killing the PS4.

Will:  I’ll agree on that, the Sony conference bored me until the end, for the most part.

Alan:  It’s still so early.  The Xbox One may end up being an amazing console,  but I’m also over forty years old with family obligations.  I need to make a choice financially, and the PS4 just seems to look better for me in that regard.

Tiff:  I still think that Sony changed their price right before the conference, just sayin’, ha ha ha…

That actually was my next question, Tiff.  Do you think Microsoft thought Sony was going to follow their lead with regard to restrictions on used games and offline play, and that Sony tricked Microsoft into throwing themselves under the bus?

Alan:  I don’t know enough about the inner politics between those two companies to say for sure, but it does feel like Sony had always intended to keep used games as an option.

Tiff:  I agree with Alan.  The whole used games restriction is a bummer, but I rarely buy used.  From a retail standpoint, I see the downfalls of not allowing used games.  If an online pass were needed for online features, I’d be okay with that, but not for single player.

Brett:  I think Sony’s and Microsoft’s used game policies are closer than Sony wants to let on.  Sony says it’s up to the developer, which is the same thing Microsoft said.  It’s the 24 hour check-in that’s a bigger deal, in my opinion.  Sony’s first party games will be freely tradeable, though.  That’s definitely a big plus for Sony.

The PS4 seems at first like the console everyone wanted Microsoft to make, but is that really going to be the case?  Even if DRM isn’t an issue for Sony exclusives, what about games from EA and Activision?  EA has come out and said that they were no longer doing online passes, but do you think they’ll stick to that for the PS4?

Will:  Gamefront and Destructoid both confirmed directly from Sony yesterday that it is not true, that developers are not allowed to turn the used game market into what Microsoft is doing.  They are still allowed to option online passes, however, probably in the same $10 price range.

Tiff:  I think what EA meant was for this current cycle, not for the next one.

Brett:  EA might be switching to activation codes or something of that nature.  Ditching online passes might not be as desirable for consumers as EA tried to imply.

Alan:  I have a question though: is either console going to be backwards compatible?

No Alan, they are not.

Will:  The PS4 is supposed to have digital backwards compatibility.

Brett:  Will’s right, the PS3 and earlier games will one day be playable digitally via Gaikai.

Tiff:  Backwards compatibility makes things a lot more expensive to produce.  Besides, I buy a new console to play new games, not old ones.

Brett:  I’m with you on that one, Tiff.  I keep my old consoles around to play retro games.

Microsoft took a beating following the presentations, but their response to the problem has made a bad situation even worse.  What do you think they could do to rehabilitate their public perception problem at this point?

Alan:  They need to address gamers directly, and stop being so smug about the whole thing.  When you find yourself in a hole, you need to stop digging.

Will:  They have a pretty offensive “just deal with it” opinion right now.  They are basically saying that the only way to have next generation gaming is with the restrictions they have in place, even though Sony has proven that isn’t the case.  The response about having a system for areas without internet, and it’s called the Xbox 360, that was just awful.  I feel like he meant well, but sheesh…there was literally nothing worse he could have said.

Tiff:  Yeah, that sucked, but that also brings up the point about internet not being available in all areas.  I really would like to see better internet connections in more rural areas, not just in the city.

Smitty:  Xbox could sway me (because I really want RYSE) if they would just stop this stupid “you can do this, you can’t do that” bullshit on used games.  The internet issue is not a big deal for me, because I’m always on already, but I do believe that’s an unfair complication for people that travel, for people in the military, etc.

Will:  Another thing that I haven’t seen brought up is what will happen to the Xbox One ten years from now.  Will it be the first console I can’t keep for retro gaming when they shut down the servers, fifteen years down the line?

It does seem like the XB1 is a system that Microsoft can just shut down when the next “next gen” comes along.  When you buy the console but need them to use it, what do you really own?

Brett:  I don’t know enough about cloud computing to say for certain, but isn’t it possible that with that technology that the XB1 could be the last Xbox you’ll ever need?  They could upgrade the processing and have it do more and more o the work, so much so that there might not even be a need for a next generation.

Will:  Possibly, but the actual tech of the system would be locked into current high end standards.  You would most likely have to upgrade it like a computer.

Alan:  It was such a long time between the launch of the 360 and PS3 and now, and this generation is likely to be even longer.

Tiff:  If we continue to look and see what the Xbox One is capable of now in comparison to what it’s capable of in the next five to ten years, we’re going to see some big differences.  We all know how much the 360 has changed since it first launched, so we can only hope that the XB1 progresses as well.

Will:  I still don’t like the idea of buying a console that is essentially a rental.

What’s being lost in all of this controversy about the new systems, is the new games.  Which ones stood out most for all of you?

Alan:  I’m really excited for Watch Dogs.  I hope it doesn’t even have a story, that it’s just a completely free roaming game.

Brett:  Watch DogsDead Rising 3Titanfall.

Tiff:  Titanfall totally got my attention when I saw the jetpacks and the giant mech.

Remember guys, chicks dig jetpacks and giant mechs.

Will:  Infamous: Second Son, Sunset Overdrive, Watch Dogs, Witcher 3RYSE looked promising, but the general consensus seems to be, “all style, no substance.”  Mirror’s Edge 2.

Open world Mirror’s Edge 2!  I’m sorry, that just slips out every few hours.

Brett:  Mirror’s Edge 2 looked nice.  Seemed like they’re sticking to the roots, too.  Not trying to turn it into a shooter or anything like that.

Alan:  I hated Witcher 2, so Witcher 3 would have to be something amazing for me to get it.  I want an open world Elder Scrolls game where I can travel the entire planet with other PCs.

That actually is in the works, Alan.  Next year, I believe.

Will:  Elder Scrolls Online coming to consoles seems huge.

Alan:  Then that will be the last game I play for the rest of my life.  I’m only partly kidding.

Tiff:  After seeing more of Destiny I don’t know if I’m as excited as I was about it before.  It looks beautiful, but I don’t know if it’s going to hold my attention long enough.

Brett:  Yeah, I thought Destiny was a let down.  Gorgeous to look at, but played like a boring version of Borderlands.

Will:  Bungie kept saying how they were doing something new, but it looks VERY Halo to me.

Tiff:  I agree, it’s got that Halo feel to it, and I don’t know if it’s just because it’s Bungie.  Maybe they should have just renamed the company and not put “From the makers of Halo” all over it.

The Last Of Us is being referred to by many critics as one of the greatest games not just of this generation, but maybe of all time.  Do you think they should have held off and released it for the next generation?

Will:  No, this generation is perfect for it.  We shouldn’t forget this generation just yet.  Systems should go out with a bang, and The Last of Us and GTA V seem to be doing that.

Brett:  And Beyond: Two Souls looks epic, too.

Will: Agreed.

Tiff:  It took five years for Sony to create an exclusive that I was actually excited to have a PlayStation 3 for, so I’m all in for The Last Of Us.  And I’ll be keeping my PlayStation 3 at least until Beyond: Two Souls comes out.

Alan:  Poor Nintendo.  They’ll have to make a holodeck to keep up at this point.

Actually I thought Nintendo showed a pretty strong set of games.  Does anyone here own a Wii U, and if not does the prospect of Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart and a new Zelda have you intrigued enough to get one?  Could you see Nintendo possibly gaining ground over Microsoft in this generation?

Alan:  I don’t know a single person that has a Wii U.  I think they’ve been written off a system for little kids and retirees.

Brett:  Yeah, the Wii U is starting to look like their Dreamcast.  They need a big price drop and they need it now.  The PS4 is only $50 more.  Bayonetta 2 and The Wonderful 101 make me want a Wii U…just not bad enough to actually go buy one.

Tiff:  I still own my Wii U and I’m not sure why I still have it.  I do love my 3DS though, and I’ve been playing it nonstop for the past couple of months, so I’m excited for new games on that system.  Zelda, Pokemon…

Will:  Nintendo won’t beat out Microsoft.  I could honestly see them turning away from consoles after this generation and going strictly handheld, and licensing their software to other platforms like Sega has.  Although I have to say that Earthbound on the virtual console is a HUGE deal for me.

Okay, last question.  Do you see any possibility of Microsoft backpedaling on their DRM, “always on” connection requirements or mandatory Kinect policies, perhaps as a response to the public’s almost unanimous distaste for them?  Or do you see them digging in their heels and hoping that Sony and Nintendo adopt similar strategies down the line?

Alan:  I don’t know how far along they are with their system.  They might not be able to backpedal.

Tiff:  I’m not a hundred percent if they’re going to be changing their policies, but I would be really excited if they did.

Will:  I don’t see them changing course as of right now.  If they really do lose a lot of the customer base, then it’s a possibility.  It won’t be this year, however.

Brett:  I don’t think they will relent.  The backlash for being seen as weak could be worse for their shareholders than the negative press they get from gamers.

Alan:  I disagree.  I think that if they can, they will.  Microsoft for years had a great rapport with their customers.  I don’t think they really want to lose that.  Even after all the Red Rings of Death and charging for Xbox Live, people stuck with them because they seemed to listen to the customers’ concerns.

Brett:  It’s important to remember that we are talking about the internet here.  The backlash that we all feel online does not exist with 80% of the people who are considering buying one.  We’re all trapped in an echo chamber right now, and it’ll be a while before we can guage the overall public opinion.

The line between “actual grievances” and “butt-hurt” is a blurry one these days.

Alan:  I went to GameStop yesterday to reserve my PS4.  There were a lot of conversations going on, and the general gist is that people are taking a wait and see approach.

Tiff:  Yes, in my store people are trying to get more information more than anything, but I have to say my location definitely has a large following of Xbox fans.  So far I’ve been very happy to see that nobody has been actually fighting about it in stores!  There’s been many yelling matches (laughs), but I do believe that both sides have their pros and cons, and in the end they will both be fantastic consoles.  I cannot wait to have both of them.

Brett:  For what it’s worth, Microsoft’s policies literally do not affect me.  All of my consoles are connected to the internet 24-7, and I rarely buy used games.  Those policies did not factor into my own decision to buy an Xbox One first.

Tiff:  Brett, that’s the exact same reason why I’m getting Xbox One first, as well.

Will:  Those policies don’t affect me either, but I think those policies are selfish, unnecessary changes just to grab greater control of the market.  I wish Microsoft would stop trying to tell me it’s for my own benefit.

Alan:  What’s going to happen to Gamefly?  They’re fucked, aren’t they?

Brett:  They might be, yeah.

Alan:  I’m curious as to what store policies are going to be with used games going forward.

Tiff:  The thing is, people who buy used games and people who buy new games are often two very different types of customers.  Sometimes it’s difficult to please both.

And the overlap between the two is not as big as most people think.  They’re like two different breeds, some of the time.  I personally buy games new if they’re big releases that I’ve been waiting for, but if it’s been out for more than a week, I’m going to hunt for a used one just because money is tight these days.  Most of my friends either swing one way or the other, though.  So to speak.

Will:  I rarely buy my games used, but the option is important to me, especially since games are not manufactured indefinitely.  A lot of games simply cannot be found new, anymore.

So which ones are we buying when they release this year?

Alan:  (laughing) I’m buying the one with the warranty.  You know how the first ones out the gate are.

Tiff:  Agreed.

Brett:  My mom is a big gamer, bought her 360 on launch day.  She’s on her fifth one thanks to the red rings of death.  But I’m still getting the XB1 at launch, and I know eventually I’m going to get a PS4.  Within a year there’s going to be some beautiful games on that system that I’m going to need.

Will:  I will be getting a PS4 at launch.  If Microsoft changes its policies, then I will consider getting an XB1 next year when more exclusives come out.

Smitty:  I’m going PS4 for multiple reasons.  One, I like my PS3, and I love PlayStation Plus.  Two, I want to play used games without jumping through crazy hoops.  Three, the Kinect already burned me once, and I’m not cool with it’s T-1000 approach to my face, although weirdly I do respect it.  Four, the PS4 seems more friendly to people who work in the retail gaming industry.  And finally, DDR 5 instead of DDR3.  It’s a slight issue that won’t mean much at launch, but it will mean more down the line.

Please tell me that DDR doesn’t stand for Dance Dance Revolution.

Smitty:  No, DDR is ram.  Like I said, I’m a graphics whore.

Tiff:  How do we all feel about the changes to PlayStation Plus, making it something you need to have in order to play online?  Xbox fans making the switch probably won’t mind since they already pay for Xbox Live, but what about current Sony fans who don’t need it for the PS3?

Alan:  The PlayStation Plus changes don’t bother me.  That was going to happen eventually with the PlayStation 3, anyway.

Brett:  I think it’s about time they made that mandatory, actually.  Networks are expensive, and PlayStation Plus is an affordable way to maintain that network for everyone involved.  It’s a fair deal.  And they’ve said you’re not going to need to use your PS4 for Netflix.  I just want to know if I’m going to need to pay for PlayStation Plus to continue playing my PS3 online.

Alan:  You’re not just getting the right to play online, you’re also getting free games and cheap deals all over the place.

Will:  Microsoft has traditionally had better online service because they have a constant revenue from memberships, so it behooves them financially to keep that aspect of their industry top notch.

Alan:  How long ago was it when the 360 and the PS3 came out?  Nine years?

It was eight, I believe.  Madden 06 came out for 360 in 2005, had Donovan McNabb on the cover back when he and Terrell Owens were still on speaking terms.

Smitty:  So that was a long time ago, lol.

Well everyone, I would like to thank you all for sharing your opinions with us tonight, hopefully we can do this again in the future!  Good night, everybody.

J. Paul McDonald bought an Xbox 360 when it released in 2005.  He has a combined Gamerscore over two separate accounts totalling over 200,000.  His lovely wife has often referred to his Xbox 360 as, “The Other Woman.”

Today he traded in all of his games for the Xbox 360…to reserve a PlayStation 4.

So we’re a young blog.  One of the problems with being so young is that you’re writing for a very small group of people, and you don’t know anybody in Malta.  You don’t expect a review of a Maltese (so that’s where that word comes from!) game to get back to the developers, so you send a nice short email thanking them for their hard work and here’s what we thought of their efforts and so forth.

The nice thing about indie game developers? Sometimes they write back!  Here’s Gordon Calleja offering some of his thoughts on how Will Love Tear Us Apart came into being.

With regards to why I chose the song… it started off what my wanting to make a game about a poem or a song.  As a challenge –  had not seen one done and figured it would be interesting to see what difficulties I would come up against when forcing game mechanics to tackle woven metaphor.  The song has been with me through my life and from time to time pops into my head and spends days there – as a sort of soundtrack to my life.  Just keeps repeating in my head.  One such period hit while I was thinking about the above challenge and I woke up in the middle of the night seeing the song as Duhreresque spatial environments.  I put it on and it was there in front of me.  The aesthetic and some of the spaces that made it into the game.  Parallel to all this a close friend of mine, Steffi Degiorgio, had started working in graphic design and games and quickly made a name for herself in the indie game scene.  We had known each other from the age of 16 and I had been encouraging her to unleash her creative side since then… and it only happened 15 years later.  So it seemed obvious that my being into game research and design and her now being a rising star in the indie game visual art scene we NEEDED to collaborate on something.  I immediately called Steffi and after some strings of zombie-muttered “fuck yous” in Maltese she gasps and goes: YES, let’s do it.

And that’s how it started.  I was still living in Copenhagen back then (where I ran the center for games research at ITU copenhagen), but wanted to do this with an all Maltese team.  So I recruited a couple of guys I had been developing with already and applied for an art fund in Malta.  We got the fund and started working on it.  Only Steffi injured her shoulders and wrist and couldn’t work on it.  Finding a replacement for her was tough and stalled the project for months.  Finally we got Anthony Catania on board, a great Maltese artist with a gorgeously dark style and the work proper started.  I took over the art direction and brought on Costantino Oliva to take the project management bit from me.  At the end of the process Anthony had to leave us and Nel Pace came on board to do an utterly fantastic job (all of the cut scenes are hers).  Not only did she deliver to a ridiculously tight schedule but managed to adapt Tony’s style fabulously. 

I can’t wait to see what Mr. Calleja and the team over at Mighty Box Games do next.

This is unexpected.

My wife called me this afternoon to let me know that there was a game out based on the song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by the Band That Changed My Life Forever, Joy Division.  Everything I’ve ever written, sang or wore has been colored to some extent by the two albums released by Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner (nee Albrecht), Peter Hook and Stephen Morris.  Only two because Curtis, their lead singer, put a rope around his neck and cut short the career of a band who’d go on to inspire everyone from U2 to Nirvana.

Maybe you haven’t heard of them. I’m not going to push them on you here.  They only take hold if you discover them for yourself.

You’ve probably seen the t-shirt, though.

That image, purportedly of the first sound wave ever photographed, wasn’t just an album cover.  It was a map.  A map to where everything I didn’t know I loved was buried.  Joy Division inspired every single one of my favorite bands, was used on the soundtrack to my favorite film of all time, and took my nascent love of minimalism and showed me that it could be applied not just to visual art, but to everything.

I literally met my wife through a guy who I used to talk to incessantly about Joy Division.  No Ian Curtis, and my kids don’t exist.

I digress.

Will Love Tear Us Apart is a game developed by Gordon Calleja for Mighty Box Games, an independent game studio based in Malta.  It was developed partially as experiment to see if something as ephemeral as a poem or a song could be reworked into an interactive experience without losing everything that gave the source material its power.  At first glance, Will Love Tear Us Apart would seem to fail that goal, but that first glance is deceiving.

The game begins by taking the familiar Unknown Pleasures album cover and reworking it into an inhospitable topography where two lovers are fighting.  The woodcut imagery is stark and beautiful, but it feels more inspired by the band Tool than it does Joy Division.  The two lovers are portrayed as puppet-like specters, their faces masks of emotions that they can’t express with any real nuance.

https://i2.wp.com/willlovetearusapart.com/gallery/02_rec_E3.jpg

You are given three cards to choose from: “I need to stay calm,” “I’m getting angry,” and “Let me try to understand.”  You try to guess by the “emotion” on your partner’s face which card they’re going to play, and you try to pick the one that will counter it.

You can’t win.

Actually, you can keep picking the card that will counter your partner, until their body withers and their heart explodes, and move on to the next section of the game.  Or you can let them win by either picking the wrong card (or no card at all) until they calmly walk all over you.  Or you can just go back and forth, forever.

But you can’t “win.”

The next section of the game features a maze with a bright light in its center.  You’re trying to guide two figures into the center light so they can be together, but every direction you move one figure in, moves the other figure in the opposite direction.  Once you get one of your figures “home,” the obstacles in the maze overcome the other.  “One always gets left behind,” says the narration, and you move on to the final stage.

In this stage you can choose one of three paths: “Snare,” “Heal,” or “Tear Us Apart.”  I’d been trying to mirror my own relationship in my play thus far, so I chose “Heal.”  I was dropped into a Skyrim-esque landscape with a compass but no real destination, and when I was moving in the right direction the music was calm and the path I had walked would light up.  When I stepped in the wrong direction, the music became unsettling and the path would start to fade.  Walking in the right direction was nearly impossible…unless you walked while looking backwards, using your past to guide your future.

I’ve seen developers try to apply game mechanics to relationship difficulties before, but almost always as a simple dialogue choice (or even something as binary as “Save your one true love / Let her die.”  Real relationships are much more subtle than that, and when they’re not going well, there is no clear path out of the darkness.  Sometimes there is no path.  Sometimes you can’t win.

But you still do your best to play.

Will Love Tear Us Apart can be played here, absolutely free.

Zillion

Zillion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a little too dark, a little intimidating, and full of some of the greatest memories of my life. Trips to Game Over Videogames in Austin are always a treat.

There’s no way to relive the best moments of your life, those times where nothing mattered except the fun you were having, but sometimes a photo, a smell, a song can bring on that surreal rush of memory and suddenly, you’re not just recalling, you’re reliving. I feel it in my stomach mostly if I smell her old perfume or hear the song that was on repeat at that party on December 31, 1999. When I set foot into that store, I’m not looking for something new; I’m hoping to reclaim something long gone.

See, I grew up Sega so I immediately flip through the bulky boxes of the Master system. I find a slew of games I’ve never played but I pay them no mind as I search specifically for Zillion, a game I played for hours upon hours before it was lost. I pick up the case and hold it in both hands as I study the horribly dated box art with a childlike sense of wonder.

Troy was his name. He lived one block over and rode to my house on a peculiar red bike that actually had shocks and springs like a car. He was never quite as good at the games we played as I was but he was no slouch either. His determination to beat Zillion was unmatched.

It was a typical Houston summer, hot and wet. It was my last before I started high school. On bikes we explored every inch of the corner of town where we grew up but that was best left for morning or evening temperatures. The middle of the day forced most kids inside and that’s when we picked up that rectangular controller and vowed to beat this game we both loved so much.

If you grew up Nintendo, you may not have heard of Zillion but it was Sega’s answer to Metroid and a spectacular game it its own right. We drew detailed maps on graph paper, marking locations of weapon upgrades and health. There were teammates to rescue and a final boss to beat and if you died, that was it. No saves, no continues, no mercy. Start again at the beginning and learn from your mistakes.

As I stand in that store, holding that box, I remember how it felt the day we finally beat that game after weeks of trying. I remember the two of us running into the other room to tell my dad that we’d finally done it. I remember the joy. That ephemeral joy of beating a game for the first time is, by definition, irreproducible, but with this box in hand, I get access to a precious fraction of it.

Maybe playing games begins as just a distraction, a time-killing device for the hottest hours of a Texan summer, but somehow they become a part of us. They unite us. They strengthen our bonds and they anchor our memories. I hold that case in my hand as I walk out, now the proud owner, and I remember a game that defined a summer and a friend who defined a childhood.

Tonight, Zillion and I reunite.

Zillion was found at Game Over Videogames in Austin, Texas.  They offer free shipping for orders over $50.  My order is definitely going to be over $50.  Brett Haile is a writer and graphic designer living in Austin, Texas, who is probably not going to get anything productive done for the rest of the evening.  I was at that party in 1999.  There were no fatalities, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Good times…

Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled their upcoming next-generation console, which they dubbed Xbox One.  This being the third in the series, the name was met with no shortage of head scratching, but most seem to be missing or simply not commenting on the significance of the name.

One.

The marketing speak would have you believe that the name represents how many electronic devices Microsoft believes you need in your living room, with their new system being your video game console, cable box, music library, etc. all in one.  And that’s technically true, the new system will be able to do all of these things, although technically so could the last one.

Hardcore gamers are upset that so much of the conference was based on things unrelated to gaming, such as the hands free Kinect functionality, the license with the NFL, and the Steven Spielberg produced Halo television series.  The only games shown were some sports titles such as Madden NFL, the racing series Forza, and of course Call of Duty.  Big titles, sure, but ones aimed squarely at fans a lot of gamers consider…well, what’s the worst word for them I could print?

Casual.

Quick, who won the last console round?  It wasn’t Microsoft, and it wasn’t Sony.  It was Nintendo.  The Nintendo Wii sold more consoles than either Sony or Microsoft by targeting demographics who previously showed no interest in gaming, using controls that didn’t require complicated button presses or dual analog stick controls.  You swung your arm, the bowling ball knocked down some pins, and you were happy.  The Wii had inferior graphics to the PS3 and the 360, it didn’t even play DVD’s, and with the exception of two Zelda‘s and some Mario titles, it didn’t even have any worthwhile games.

And it crushed the competition.

Did you think that Microsoft and Sony weren’t going to notice this?  That they were going to just let these huge demographic swaths just lie there on the side of the road without someone asking if they needed a ride?  So Sony created the Move, and Microsoft created the Kinect.  The Move is pretty much a bust, and the jury is still out on the Kinect as a game system, but the potential the Kinect has shown as a user interface is astounding.  It’s not going to go away, but is the new Kinect going to be a game-changing break from the previous one?

Everything we were shown was good, but what was new?  Nothing.  I think this was deliberate.

Innovation is exciting to a lot of us, but intimidating to most.  Most people fear being the early adopter on a dead technology, and the best way to bring in customers isn’t to offer them the future, it’s to offer them the past.  The familiar, the comfortable, the thing that they’re used to.  That’s what Microsoft is doing.  There’s no doubt that this new generation of consoles is going to push gaming to levels we haven’t even imagined, but that’s not going to put an Xbox One in every nursing home where the Wii’s are collecting dust.  This approach won’t make Microsoft cool, but it will make Microsoft money.

Xbox One isn’t the first Xbox you’ll own.  It’s the first Xbox that they’ll own.  And they might never play a game on it.  They might use it for Netflix and Hulu and Pandora and everything but games.

Oh my god, people might buy this system and use it differently than you would!

And that’s okay.  Game developers didn’t stop designing complicated games just because the Wii was a financial success.  The brains at Valve and Dice and Bioware and Irrational didn’t pull the plugs on Portal and Battlefield and Mass Effect and Bioshock because your grandma wanted to go bowling.  So relax.  The games are coming, and nobody’s going to make you play the ones you don’t want to.  The box may say Just Dance, but just don’t.  It’s a big tent, you can stand by the bar if you like.

But some people are just going to dance anyway.