My 2020 Resolutions

Happy new year!

My first 2020 resolution is a simple one.  I resolve to write more, complain less, and find some sort of happiness in every day.

Okay, maybe that’s not as simple of a resolution as I thought.  How do you find happiness in every day?  Some days in 2020 just aren’t going to be good.  We all know that.  But, for me, finding happiness doesn’t mean forcing yourself to smile while the world is burning around you.  And it doesn’t mean ignoring anything that could make you angry or sad.  To me, what that means is not allowing the negativity of today’s world to overwhelm you.

Thanks to social media, the nonstop 24-hour news cycle, and many other things, people spent the past decade allowing themselves to become overwhelmed.  As a result, they failed to notice a lot of good things and they’re still failing to notice them today.  Over the past ten years, but particularly since the election of 2016, many people have become consumed with trying to prove that they’re more miserable than their neighbor.  Well, hopefully, 2020 will be the year when people say, “ENOUGH!  Life’s just not that bad!”

My other 2020 resolution is to play every possible ending in Detroit: Become Human.  That resolution might be more difficult than the first.

Regardless, happy 2020!

Thoughts After Replaying L.A. Noire

I recently replayed L.A. Noire, a game that I enjoyed when it was first released in 2011.  I was curious to see if, after eight years, it still held up.  The first time I played L.A. Noire, it was on the Xbox 360.  For the replay, I used the version that was released for the PS4.  This version included extra rewards and cases that were not originally included in the game.

L.A. Noire takes place in Los Angeles in the years immediately following World War II.  For the majority of the game, you control the actions of Cole Phelps, a decorated USMC veteran who works his way up through the LAPD.  He starts as a uniformed policeman before being promoted to detective.  The game follows him through three different department until, as a result of a personal scandal, he ends up being demoted down to arson.  Along the way, Phelps learns the truth about the Black Dahlia murderer and gets involved in the deadly aftereffects of a morphine heist.  Through a series of flashbacks, we also discover that Phelps may not be the war hero that everyone thinks that he is.  Cole’s an interesting hero because he’s so openly ambitious and judgmental that he is sometimes easy to dislike.  Nearly everyone who works with Cole in the game either beings their partnership disliking him or grows to dislike him over time.  Cole can be abrasive but he also has a strong moral sense and, when he says that he’s a better detective than his partners, he has a point.  From the start, the games teases us about Cole’s inevitable downfall but, when it actually does happen, it catches both Cole and the player by surprise.

L.A. Noire is an open world game, meaning that Phelps can temporarily abandon a case and spend some time walking and driving around Los Angeles.  The game’s recreation of 1947 Hollywood is impressive but, when compared to other open world games, there’s not much to do when you’re not actually on a mission.  This isn’t like Grand Theft Auto, where you can spends weeks mugging people and stealing cars until deciding to return a phone call so that you can get your next task.  L.A. Noire is a story-centered game so be prepared to spend most of your time searching crime scenes for clues, going back to the police station to pick up lab reports, and interrogating suspects.

When L.A. Noire first came out, it was the interrogation scenes that received the most attention.  The game used MotionScan technology and 32 cameras to capture every possible facial expression of the actors appearing in the game.  When you ask someone a question, you can watch their expressions while they answer and make the determination whether they’re lying or telling the truth, as well as whether to be a good cop or a bad cop.  You can watch an liar refuses to make eye contact with you or as an innocent man sweats out an aggressive questioning.  It puts you right in the world of the game, though I was disappointed to discover that wrongly accusing someone of lying doesn’t actually have much of an effect on how each case ends.

The main flaw with L.A. Noire‘s stoy is that, during the final fourth of the game, a new character is introduced.  Jack Kelso served with Cole in the Marines and knows the truth about Cole’s wartime “heroism.”  For the final few cases, Jack replaces Cole as the playable character and Cole is reduced to supporting him.  Because Jack is written to be perfect and basically has none of Cole’s flaws, he’s also not a very interesting protagonist.  Switching from playing Cole to Kelso bothered me the first time that I played L.A. Noire and it bothered me even more when I replayed it.  A final cut scene, which revealed that Kelso knew more than he originally let on, did not help.

Fortunately, the rest of the game still held up very well.  The cases are all challenging without being impossible to solve and the game does a great job of recreating the atmosphere of classic California noirs like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential.  Cole, his partners, and all of the suspects are vividly written and voiced characters and the cases that Cole works for Homicide are just creepy enough to make this game appropriate for October playing.  Be careful chasing the Black Dahlia killer into the catacombs.  I didn’t bother to pay attention to where I was going and I spent an hour running around in circles before I finally found him and promptly got gunned down.

There are puzzles to be solved and suspects to be pursued.  This game may mostly be about interrogating people and analyzing clues but it does have its share of car chases.  Fortunately, if you fail to complete an action scene too many times in a row, the game will give you the option of just skipping it.  When you’re working with a partner and heading to a crime scene, that game also give you the option of telling your partner to drive to the location.  That’s something I, being among the directionally challenged, appreciated.

However, if you do enjoy driving through a video game, L.A. Noire‘s recreation of Los Angeles in the 40s has much to recommend it.  Driving through the game’s version of Los Angeles, you’ll find plenty of evidence of America’s post-World War II optimism.  New houses are being constructed.  Innocent young women are hanging out on every street corner, looking to become a star.  The theater marquees advertise movies like Odd Man Out.   All of the famous Hollywood landmarks are lovingly recreated.  An early case leads to you searching for clues behind the Hollywood sign.  Another case actually leads to a firefight at the old Intolerance set while yet another case tests how much attention you’ve been paying by requiring you to solve a series of riddles that will lead you from one landmark to another.  In the tradition of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, L.A. Noire challenges you to take a look at what’s happening underneath Los Angeles’s pleasing surface.

As a game, L.A. Noire holds up well.  I won’t hold my breath for that sequel that was promised seven years ago but I did enjoy replaying it.

Silent Hill Memories

I was sixteen when Silent Hill first came out for the Playstation.

From the first minute I played it, I was hooked and Silent Hill would go on to become the first video game that I ever seriously got into.  I would study the game.  I would go online, in those early days of the world wide web, to read the theories of other players and visit the occasional Geocities-hosted fan page.  I actually got very upset when innocent nurse Lisa Garland was lost to the town’s curse.  I was also amazed to discover that the game’s storyline and ending could change depending on whether or not I saved Cybil Bennett.  A video game with multiple endings that went beyond just “good” and “bad?”  This was a big deal back in 1999!

Looking back after all these years, there are four main things that I remember about Silent Hill.

First off, and I know I’m not alone,I remembered the opening and especially the music that played during the scenes of Harry Mason driving down that foggy road:

Secondly, I remember the scenes that played after the game’s ending, which featured all of Silent Hill‘s characters blowing their lines, missing their cues, and laughing about it.  Today the animation may look primitive but back in 1999, seeing this at least provided some comfort if you got one of the bad endings, especially the “bad” ending where you defeated the monster but your daughter died (“Thank you, Daddy … goodbye.”) and then you ended up dead in your car.

I remember the nearly legendary fifth ending of the game, in which Harry Mason ended up getting abducted by aliens.  In the days before YouTube, when you had to trust word-of-mouth, there were some people who insisted that this ending was just an urban legend while there were others who couldn’t stop bragging about how they had gotten the alien ending while the rest of us just had to settle for the “saved the world and your daughter” ending.  When I finally managed to get the UFO ending, I was so happy that I felt like I was the one who had been abducted by aliens.

Finally, the main thing I remember about Silent Hill is that I was never very good at it.  I was the player who always ended up getting lost and walking around in a circle.  I can’t remember how many times I played before I managed to not die in the diner.  As soon as I heard the radio static that indicated that I was about to get attacked, I started to run because I know I wasn’t a good enough shot to fight off any of the game’s monsters.  Harry Mason was searching for his daughter and I was probably the worst possible person to lead him in that search because I somehow always managed to get Harry killed.  It didn’t matter how many times I played the game, I never really got good at it.  Even when I finally managed to get the best ending possible, it was only after saving and reloading the game a countless number of times.

I may have never been good at the game but I still enjoyed leading Harry to his death and occasionally to one of the good endings.  Silent Hill is what taught me that there was more to video games than just jumping and shooting and for that, I will be forever thankful.

They’re Coming

A mysterious interstellar object is approaching our solar system.

On the basis of my many years of studying pop culture, I can say without fear of contradiction that this means that either Superman or Klaatu is coming to visit us.

We’re either going to get a lecture…

…or a hero.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s just Crypto, returning to destroy all humans.

Either way, let’s be on our best behavior when they arrive.  We don’t want Earth to get a bad reputation.

Seven Hours!?

On September 4th, CNN is going to be holding one of their town hall events with ten of the candidates currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination.  The topic will be climate change and the event is scheduled to last for SEVEN hours!

This not a debate.  Instead, each candidate will appear on stage for 40 minutes to answer questions about their environmental policy.  As far as I know, none of the major Democratic candidates have come out in support of climate change so how newsworthy we can expect the event to be is open to question.

For those interested:

For me, the most interesting thing about this town hall is the number of candidates who were not invited.  I understand that eligibility was determined by polling but, if this issues is important enough to require sacrificing seven hours of programming on CNN, why not try to get as many Democrats to participate as possible?  If they simply reduced each candidate’s time from 40 to 20 (or even 30) minutes, CNN could probably make room for everyone running.

Personally, on September 4th, I’ll be playing Madden.

I picked up Madden 20 last Friday and…

…I’ve already turned the NFL upside down.

In franchise mode (which, if you ask me, is the only correct way to play any of the Madden games), I bought the Houston Texans and, through a perfect combination of bad gameplay and marketing incompetence, I drove down the team’s popularity to such an extent that I was able to relocate them to another city.

Las Vegas, San Antonio, and Chicago all put in their bids but there was really only one true contender.

Ladies and gentleman, say hello to the London Monarchs.

Named after the team that called London home during the NFL Europe era, the London Monarchs have already lost one Super Bowl to the Cowboys and are currently 6 games away from ending their second regular season with a perfect, 16-0 record.  Unfortunately, paying J.J. Watt’s early signing bonus has also put the Monarchs about 60 million dollars in the hole.  (Despite being based in London, the Monarchs still use American currency.)  If we don’t win the Super Bowl this season, the Monarchs may soon be under new management.

The Madden games have always been my favorite way to waste time during the final days of summer and the first days of fall.  For all of the criticism that the Madden franchise has gotten, it’s still one of the most addictive games out there.  Madden 20’s franchise mode is a marked improvement over some of the previous editions of the game.  I’ve been playing as an owner and I’ve discovered that setting the perfect ticket price can be just as challenging as calling the perfect pass play.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a Super Bowl to win.  Someone warn the Americans.  The British are coming for the Lombardi trophy!

Video Games Are Not To Blame

When I was growing up, I used to love to play Castle Wolfenstein and Doom.  While playing those games, I fired every weapon that I could get my hands on and I killed a countless number of Nazis and demons.

In real life, I have never shot anyone nor have I ever been tempted to.

Later on, I discovered the Grand Theft Auto games.  While playing those games, I’ve stolen a countless number of cars and I’ve run down a lot of people.  Most of them I didn’t mean to run down.  Everyone knows how difficult it is to go in reverse when you’re playing Grand Theft Auto.

In real life, I have never stolen car and I’ve never never run anyone over.  Nor have I ever been tempted to.

That’s because I’ve always known that video games are not real life.  Even when I was a kid, I understood that if someone died in real life, they wouldn’t just respawn and continue playing the game.  I would say that’s true of 99.9% of all gamers.  As for the .1% that doesn’t understand the difference, they have problems that started long before they played their first game.

Whenever there’s a mass shooting or any other traumatic act of public violence, people demand to know how it could have happened.  Video games are always a convenient scapegoat.  Many video games are violent and gamers are easy targets for the media to pick on.  But this idea that little Johnny was perfectly normal until he played Call of Duty or Fortnite is ludicrous and everyone knows it.  When I hear about a school shooter who spent hours playing a violent video game, I don’t care about which game he was playing.  Instead, what I want to know is where were his parents while he was doing this?  Too often video games are blamed because no one wants to admit that they either ignored all of the obvious red flags or that they didn’t have the courage to confront what, deep down, they knew was happening.

Video games are not to blame and neither are gamers.  Using them as a scapegoat is not going to solve a thing.  People with a propensity for violence are always going to seek out ways to be violent.  Banning video games isn’t going to make that type of person any less violent.  It’s just going to inspire him to find a new way to express whatever it is that’s going on inside his head.

Until we get serious and stop looking for easy targets to blame, the shootings like we saw this weekend are going to continue and they’re going to keep getting worse.  Solely blaming video games — as if a mass-produced game is somehow more responsible for an individual’s actions than the individual himself — is not a serious response and anyone doing it is not a serious person.

A Late Review of PS4’s Spider-Man (Repost)

Today, Spider-Man is 57 year-old!  In honor of his birthday, I’m reposting my review of the Spider-Man PS4 game.  I originally posted this, back in February, on the Shattered Lens website.  Since that time, I’ve replayed the game a few times and I’ve had just as much fun as the first time.  The pigeons still drive me crazy, though.  Here’s my original review:

It took me a little over a month to make my way through PS4’s Spider-Man.

I started playing around the middle of December and I finally completed the game on January 30th.  I didn’t play every day, of course.  There was one week when I was so busy with the real world that I didn’t play at all.  Most days, when I did play, I would spend maybe 60 to 90 minutes on the game, sometimes more and sometimes less.  All told, I’d estimate that it took about a total of 25 hours for me to finish the game’s story.  That’s not counting the time that I spent on side quests or the times when I would just swing through New York and appreciate the massive amount of work and detail that went into recreating Manhattan Island.

The first half of the game is probably one of the best advertisements for New York City that’s ever been put together.  Whether you’re swinging through Central Park or taking in the sights in Times Square, it’s hard not to get drawn into the game’s depiction of New York as being the most exciting city in the world.  Both Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson get scenes in which they talk about how much they love New York.  At the start of the game’s third act, a major disaster happens and New York is suddenly trashed and no longer as friendly a place.  While the streets are controlled by the paramilitary mercenaries of Sable International, the rooftops are populated by snipers who think nothing of trying to shoot you while you’re trying to swing from mission to mission.  And yet, even when things are at their worst, the indomitable spirit of New York survives.  Even though a biological weapon has been detonated and there’s been a massive prison break, you can still find people taking a stroll through Central Park.  (Of course, now they’re wearing surgical masks and some of them are stopping to cough.)  Even after martial law is declared, you can still drop in on the quad at Empire U and find students hanging out.  J. Jonah Jameson (who, in this game, hosts Spider-Man’s favorite podcast) may be a braying fool most of the time but he’s right when he says that New York will never surrender.

(The game’s action is limited to Manhattan.  As much as I would have loved to have visited the Bronx, I understand that there’s only so much that one game can do.  When I tried to swim to Staten Island, I discovered that swimming is the one thing that Spider-Man does not do well.  When I tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, I got a warning telling me that I was “leaving the game.”  Maybe the sequel will take Spider-Man into the outer boroughs.)

Spider-Man is voiced by Yuri Lowenthal and, after playing this game, it’ll be impossible for me to ever think of Spider-Man as sounding like anyone else.  Whether he’s telling a bad joke or, when the game takes a detour into Spider-Man’s subconscious, battling his own demons, Lowenthal simply is Spider-Man.

The game features many of the members of Spider-Man’s supporting cast, with Yuri Watanabe, Mary Jane, Miles Morales, and Aunt May all making welcome appearances.  (Four of the story’s missions require the player to take on the roles of either MJ or Miles.)  As for the game’s villains, Doctor Octopus, Kingpin, Tombstone, Taskmaster, Norman Osborne, Mr. Negative, Electro, Vulture, Rhino, Scorpion, Screwball, and Shocker all play roles of varying importance.  Doctor Octopus is reimagined as being, before he goes bad, almost a surrogate father to Peter.  When Spider-Man battles him, he’s not only fighting Doctor Octopus but he’s also battling his own guilt.  We all know the old saying: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”  PS4’s Spider-Man is one of the few adaptations of the character that actually understands what that means.

While I liked the way that the villains were depicted and I think that this is one of the few Spider-Man adaptations to actually capture what makes Electro such an *ahem* electrifying character, I do wish that some of the boss battles had been more difficult.  While they do provide some challenge, they can also often be won just by pushing the dodge button until your opponents eventually tire themselves out.  For one battle, Spider-Man debuts a new suit designed to give him an advantage.  I won the battle without ever using the advantage.  Another battle can be won by finding a high place to perch on while your two opponents defeat themselves with friendly fire.

To anyone playing the game for the first time, my main warning would be to hold off on talking to a homeless man named Howard.  It’s tempting to go over and speak with him because his sidequest is located right next to the building where you go to visit Aunt May.  When you see the little blue diamond inviting you to visit with Howard, it’s hard to resist.  However, when you talk to Howard, you eventually end up agreeing to help him find all of his pet pigeons.  Those pigeons are located across the city and, as soon as you find yourself near any of them them, they’ll take off flying and, regardless of whatever else you may have going on, you’ll be expected to chase after them.  When it comes to Howard, hold off on talking to him until after you’ve taken care of the game’s main story.

Flaws aside, Spider-Man captures the spirit of its main character.  It’s not just about fighting crime, though there is a lot of that to do.  It’s also about making sure that Aunt May isn’t wearing herself out with her volunteer work.  It’s about trying to find time to cook dinner for MJ without neglecting the demands of being a super hero.  It’s about the sidequest where you rescue a civilian who, because he’s wandering around New York dressed like you, has attracted the wrong type of attention.  It’s about checking in on the research stations that Harry Osborne set up around the city before he mysteriously disappeared.  Sometimes, it’s just about taking the time to stop and take a selfie with a fan.  There’s plenty of action but, for me, the game was at its best when it was simply about Spider-Man swinging across Manhattan, looking for old backpacks and sometimes taking pictures of landmarks.

Spider-Man is one of the most enjoyable games that I’ve played in a while and I look forward to replaying it.  Next time, though, I’m telling Howard to collect his own pigeons…