Bloodborne

You awaken and find yourself in a nightmare. The great city of Yharnam is a charnel-house, overcome by an unholy plague known as the Scourge of the Beast. The residents of the city have barred their doors as sunset approaches, relying only on scented braziers and whispered prayers to ward away the lycanthropes that have the run of the city. The only living things that walk the streets of Yharnam tonight are beasts, and the Hunters who slay them. And as the Blood Moon rises, the line between hunter and beast may soon disappear entirely…

Bloodborne is the latest action-RPG from Japanese developers FROM Software, and is both a new IP and a continuation of their infamous Souls series. You control a nameless, amnesiac Hunter, one of an elite breed of warrior who specializes in battling transformed humans who have fallen victim to the Scourge of the Beast. Trapped in Yharnam on an especially inauspicious night, you must travel through the winding streets of the city, storm the inner sanctums of Yharnam’s religious elite, and eventually penetrate beyond the veil of our lucid reality itself in your quest to end the Scourge and prevent the beastly transformation of every man, woman, and child.

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The hunt begins.

Although nominally an RPG, since the player can spend ‘Blood Echoes’ on leveling their Hunter, the gameplay is pure action, relying on reflexes and tactical nous to succeed, and it’s entirely possible to beat the game without leveling up once (although this isn’t recommended). The core gameplay loop is based around your stamina meter, a pool of roughly 100 stamina points which will be expended by a few seconds’ worth of actions, and will recharge just as quickly. Striking a blow and an evasive roll both pull from this same resource, meaning the player must constantly manage their stamina reserve to successfully avoid enemy attacks, whilst dealing damage themselves using light and heavy attacks, with different damage outputs and stamina costs. It’s this core conceit that drives the unforgiving and ferocious combat: pressing buttons without thinking about the consequences will result in my not having enough stamina to evade an incoming blow from one of Yharnam’s monstrous beasts, and possibly my demise.

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The men of the city have taken to the streets to fight the beasts, but are afflicted by the Scourge themselves. These mobs of huntsmen form your early opposition.

This gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s played Dark Souls, although FROM have mixed the formula up for Bloodborne. Previous Souls games had slower, methodical play, allowing you to utilize a shield which would block damage at the cost of slowly-regained stamina, resulting in a measured battle of raised and dropped guards, fishing for an opening. Bloodborne supercharges your stamina regeneration and throws the blocking mechanic out of the window, replacing shields with a gun held in your Hunter’s left hand. Blasting a beast with a quicksilver bullet at the right moment will result in the monster being staggered, inviting your Hunter to close in for a Visceral Attack – a powerful counter-strike that can kill many opponents outright. Rather than hiding behind a shield and waiting for an enemy to exhaust its attack animations, in Bloodborne you have to stretch your reflexes to breaking point, waiting until you see the whites of a werewolf’s eyes before you interrupt his lunge with a snout-full of quicksilver. It’s a thrilling upgrade to the combat, and although the early hours of the game had me crying for a shield, I no longer miss them. Player movement has been sped up too, and the sometimes clunky evasive rolls of Dark Souls have been replaced with dizzyingly fast and stamina-cheap quick-steps, performed when a Hunter is locked on to a beast. Your speed itself is a defense, and coupled with the new Rally system, which allows the Hunter to regain lost HP by damaging an enemy within a short time window, you’ll find that your defense, instead of blocking, is often blood-thirsty offense. The game’s combat is just as punishing as its predecessors, if not more so, but when you’re playing well the battles are blistering and euphoric, a chain of quick-steps and strikes, gunblasts and near-misses, parries leading into visceral attacks that flow into another effortless dodge as a beast claws the empty air. In-game sources speak of Hunters becoming drunk on blood and losing themselves in the Hunt, and once you’ve cleared a courtyard of five enemies without taking a hit, you’ll start to see what they’re talking about.

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Yharnam’s beasts are no pushovers.

Moments like this are rare, of course. Bloodborne is probably not the hardest game ever made, but it’s unashamedly punishing. FROM’s games have amassed a cult following over the past decade for their deep, demanding combat systems, and Bloodborne is no different. Yharnam’s beasts will introduce you to the business end of their claws mercilessly from the opening act of the game, and when you run into your first blood-addled Hunter, adversaries who can match your speed and ferocity move for move, the game kicks into a higher gear still. Dying a dozen times in an hour is not uncommon if you’re exploring new territory, and when I was getting to grips with the changes to the combat system I died far more than that. Every single fight can kill you, and there are no ‘easy’ enemies, perhaps excepting the glacially slow legless zombies you encounter in some water-logged areas – the only enemy type, I believe, that never killed me during my playthroughs. The game never allows you to rest on your laurels either – as soon as you’ve gotten to grips with one attack pattern, the next area will throw something totally different at you. The homicidal townsfolk and werewolves of the early game give way to ever stranger and more punishing beasts, some of which have multiple battle stances and a wide palette of attacks to chose from. The combat is designed to test you to the limit, and does.

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Yeah, I know.

This challenge is even explicitly acknowledged within the plot. At the start of the game your Hunter’s consciousness is drawn into an alternate world known as the Hunter’s Dream, access to which is granted by dream lanterns. When slain you will reappear at the last lantern you touched, without any Blood Echoes you gathered, but still in possession of your items, and with any shortcuts or elevators you found still activated. Every level is a gauntlet of ambushes, shortcuts, tempting items, and carefully pitched combat. You’re intended to die, learn something, and get a little further next time, and some NPCs even remark on your immortality – those who’ve previously lived within the Dream know that death can’t stop you, an interesting inversion of most games’ stories, which never acknowledge the many attempts you may have made on a particular section.

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Tough enemies like this executioner require lightning reflexes and patient observation to defeat.

Although from Dark Souls onwards FROM games’ difficulty has been made into a marketing point, I don’t see it as the point of the games exactly. I don’t enjoy the challenge of Bloodborne simply because I’m a mascochist – the challenge creates a deeper investment in the game’s world. Everyone in Yharnam is terrified of the beasts, and I, the player, am terrified of them too: at the start of the game a lunging attack from a fully-grown werewolf will kill me stone dead. The bosses are the utmost expression of this challenge, each creature a climactic struggle that can take heroic reserves of patience to master and defeat. These bosses don’t just feel like epic story moments – they are epic confrontations, forcing me into close quarters with some of gaming’s most terrifying adversaries, making me fight them over and over again until I recognise every animation, every feint and tell. I don’t scour every corner of Bloodborne’s labyrinthine environments out of duty or boredom – I’m searching for treasure from necessity, not wanting to miss a weapon or item that might get me through the next fight in one piece. I take Bloodborne’s world seriously because the gameplay forces me to.

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Bosses like the Bloodstarved Beast here prove the ultimate test of a Hunter’s prowess.

Fortunately the game has a world worth paying attention to. FROM’s games attract cultural attention because they’re not afraid to kill the player a hundred times per playthrough, but I think they’re also masterclasses in environmental storytelling and level design. Yharnam feels real, somehow. Whereas Dark Souls drew from familiar Dungeons and Dragons sources, conjuring up crumbling castles and magma-lit caverns, Bloodborne draws from the Gothic tradition, giving us a vaguely Victorian world of mist and gas-lamps, top hats and greatcoats, dagger-sharp railings and moss-choked cherubs. Central Yharnam’s alleys and courtyards establish a visual style that pushes the Gothic to a dream-like point beyond absurdity – every house has spires and twisted gutters and gargoyles, and enormous cathedrals loom over the city like a fun-house mirror of Notre Dame (there’s a really nice essay by Ario Barzan about Yharnam’s architecture). I have to admit there were times when the relentless gothic darkness became more comical than scary – it would appear that the dominant industry in Yharnam before the plague was carving statues of weeping women, as they’re found at every single junction – but broadly the visual style is outstanding. I’ve never seen a game that looks quite like this, and the environments don’t let up throughout the game. After familiarizing us with the Yharnam palette during the first act of the game, later locations strike a contrast that astounded me; a special highlight was the Nightmare Frontier, a strangely beautiful otherscape modeled on the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. You’ll also visit a cursed, blizzard-bound castle straight out of Dracula, an overgrown hamlet that’s home to eye-encrusted witches, and a moonlit forest infested with slithering parasites.

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Early art that shows off Bloodborne’s cluttered, gothic aesthetic.

The atmosphere created by the artists and sound designers is second to none, and they’re able to craft horror stories using architecture alone. I’ll never forget my first sight of  Yahar’gul, the Unseen Village, a late-game location where the dark heart of Yharnam is revealed. The Blood Moon is high, bathing the streets in crimson light, and the truth that was previously hidden from your Hunter’s sight is laid bare. The lower levels of Yahar’gul are crowded with petrified bodies, residents fleeing an unseen catastrophe who’ve been turned into stone by some occult force. Their bodies are so thickly packed at some points that they’re becoming part of Yharnam itself, melting into the buildings. It was an eerie echo of Pompeii, and one of many points while playing when the level design made me say to myself ‘What the fuck has been happening here?’

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A resident of the Unseen Village.

This is a question that’s never entirely answered. Bloodborne’s story is elliptical and poetic, told mostly through item descriptions and inference – the non-hostile characters you encounter, in true FROM Software style, are rarely in a mood to divulge anything much beyond cryptic clues. Miyazaki, the lead designer and writer, has said in interviews that the tone of his games is inspired by his childhood, when he’d read fantasy novels written in English. He loved the stories, but his grasp of the language wasn’t good enough to follow them fully, and he said he wanted to create narratives that echo that sense of mystery. Suffice it to say that Bloodborne takes influence not just from the 19th Century Gothic of Stoker and Shelley, but also from internet-favorite author Howard Phillips Lovecraft, pulp magazine purveyor of cosmic horror and eldritch truths. What starts out as a gas-lamps and werewolves story becomes something much stranger, and the Beast Scourge is just a part of the puzzle. Miyazaki has drawn not just from Lovecraft’s well-known late work but also from his mid-period Dream Cycle, especially The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.

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As you plunge deeper into Yharnam’s mysteries, reality itself begins to warp.

Your Hunter has a statistic known as Insight, which represents the depth of their inhuman knowledge. Discovering certain areas or creatures will raise this statistic, as will consuming an unpleasant item known as the ‘Skull of a Madman’, and once the Hunter gains certain levels of Insight the game world will begin to change. Extradimensional creatures which were once hidden from you are revealed, and some adversaries become exponentially more dangerous with higher levels of Insight, due to a new debuff known as Frenzy, a very damaging status effect which you become more vulnerable to at higher Insight levels. I wished this Insight mechanic was used more than it is – honestly there are only a few new things to see with high Insight, and I would’ve loved to see some more surreal effects, like the hallucinations in cult Gamecube hit Eternal Darkness – but it’s a smart addition nonetheless, and a clever early hint that there’s more to Yharnam than you first see.

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Visit historic Yharnam.

The story is open to interpretation, but at heart Bloodborne is obsessed with reproduction and evolution. We discover that there is another world, known as the Dream, and within the Dream reside the Great Ones, god-like creatures that are beyond human understanding. The Healing Church – Yharnam’s dominant organization – has been using the blood of a Great One to heal Yharnam’s populace of all illnesses, gaining wealth and hegemonic power in the process. However, this blood transfusion seems to cause sporadic outbreaks of the Beast Scourge, which the Church suppresses with the use of Hunters, who are also fortified by ever-increasing doses of space-god blood – a tactic which has worked until the current, apocalyptic beast outbreak under the Blood Moon, a celestial event which seems closely linked to certain of the Great Ones.

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Contact with a Great One.

Meanwhile, powerful forces in the upper echelons of the Church are desperate to contact the Great Ones directly and learn from them, perhaps even ascending themselves and becoming denizens of these dreamlands beyond our base reality. Within each man or woman, it seems, is the potential to become either a god or a beast. There are intellectual schisms between the scholars who would ascend to a higher existence through insight and contemplation, and some who would forcibly evolve our race via the use of supernatural transfusions, although it’s the latter faction who gained power in Yharnam and caused the current catastrophe. There’s a recurring conflict between knowledge (represented by the eye) and action/birth (represented by blood), and the familiar horror trope of the werewolf gains an intriguing new resonance in this context. What the Great Ones themselves want from us is naturally less clear, but as the game says, ‘Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate.’ When the Blood Moon hangs low in the sky, a womb may be blessed…

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A great deal of the story lies in item descriptions.

You’re given a lot of puzzle pieces, and no one right way to put them all together. I wouldn’t like to call Bloodborne a great work of literature, and when you explain the plot in lucid terms it ends up sounding like gibberish (I haven’t even touched on the mysteries behind the Hunter’s Dream, or the Plain Doll, or Queen Yharnam, who gave her name to the city, or your search for the elusive substance known as Paleblood). But I found myself invested in the horrible world, and the game’s refusal to spell anything out for you ends up working in its favour. Rather than giving you an infodump about the schism between the Choir and the School of Mensis, the Healing Church’s elite factions, Bloodborne leaves you with inference and hints, such as the presence of a corpse in Choir clothing found in the underground prisons of Yahar’gul. The player is totally free to run in, grab a key, and run back out without ever thinking about what the corpse might imply. But the level designers placed it there for a reason, and there’s a tiny piece of the narrative present in the clothing they dressed a background corpse in. This level of care and detail is present throughout the game, and allows you to experience the story at your own rate, in your own way, and draw your own conclusions. The game is admirably indifferent about whether you experience the baroque plot or not, in stark contrast to many worse-written videogame stories that ram themselves down your throat in unskippable cut scenes. There are three enormous, fully-developed secret environments with totally unique art assets which must’ve taken months to develop; all would be incredibly easy to miss, and the game is, again, totally indifferent as to whether you discover them. There’s even a secret final boss and ending, the preconditions to finding which are so obscure and odd that I’m not sure how anyone’s supposed to work it out without the internet. It is, in short, a truly interactive narrative that gives up its secrets to those who are willing to put in the work, and will remain utterly opaque to people who don’t. In the same way that your struggle with the challenging combat makes you care more about the game, I’d argue that the obscure and poetic story fragments draw you in and make you more invested in working out what’s really happening, and the endless dissertation-length posts about Bloodborne’s lore available online seem to prove my point.

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The Hunter’s Dream, your safe haven from the horrors of the hunt.

I can certainly level some criticisms at the game, but I don’t have many. There were times, mostly fighting creatures larger than my Hunter, when the camera felt like the real enemy; it can sometimes get stuck on the geometry of larger bosses, and in fights like the early Cleric Beast battle, locking on can be an active detriment to success. The healing system has been changed – Dark Souls carefully restricted you to healing from Estus flasks, special items which would be renewed once you died and resurrected at a bonfire. Bloodborne gives you blood vials instead, which are farmable consumables rather than rationed but renewable items. I find Bloodborne’s system of gathering these vials, whilst not exactly poorly implemented, a regression from the Estus flasks. I always knew I’d have healing items available to me in Dark Souls, and it was up to me to decide how to utilise them. Bloodborne basically requires you to grind early areas like Central Yharnam to build up a stockpile of vials, especially once a few ill-judged attempts at a new boss reduce your supply to zero. This is tiresome, and it is especially tiresome since Dark Souls sidestepped this issue so deftly. There are also far fewer effective playstyles than in previous titles. Heavy armor doesn’t exist and your character moves at the same speed no matter what items they have equipped, stripping out a layer of complexity from the combat. Magic has been relegated to a couple of arcane relics and ‘Hunter Tools’, which bizarrely draw from the same quicksilver bullet resource as your firearms, despite not firing bullets. There are only a handful of weapons in the game, in contrast to Dark Souls’ Barbie-worthy collection of accoutrements and special swords (in Bloodborne’s defense, there isn’t really a dud weapon in its armory – you can finish the game using any of them, and the excellent DLC has added quite a few new trick-blades anyway). It just doesn’t have the same variety of viable combat-builds that the Souls games have, and if you don’t enjoy the fast-paced, glass cannon style of play that Bloodborne encourages, you’re out of luck. I love the combat, and I think the focus on one style has paid off, but I can see it being off-putting to some.

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It’s great to see the community coming together.

I could go on and on – I’ve not touched upon online play, or the transforming Trick Weapons, or the Chalice Dungeons, or the excellent musical score, or the recently released Old Hunters add-on pack – but I’ll cut myself short. Bloodborne is a masterpiece, a heart-pounding action-RPG hybrid that to me is the new console generations’ first necessary game. Those who’ve had to endure my company at any point since 2011 will know that I consider Dark Souls one of the greatest games ever made, and will therefore recognise the compliment I’m paying Bloodborne when I say I honestly can’t make a choice as to which title is better. I’ve been playing for nearly sixty hours at this point and I still haven’t experienced everything on offer. The challenging combat can prove a brick wall at first, and I repeatedly gave up on playing before I ever reached the first boss because I couldn’t make my way through a deeply frustrating encounter with two werewolves, but once you progress past the pain barrier there is a dark and bloody treasure-chest of marvels waiting for you.

Life is Strange

Maxine Caulfield has come unstuck in time. After witnessing a blackmail attempt gone lethally wrong in the girl’s bathroom of her high school (bear with me), eighteen year-old photography student Max discovers she can rewind time to any point in her near past. She uses this power to prevent the murder, saving the life of Chloe Price, an old friend from childhood with whom Max has long drifted out of touch. Chloe is investigating the disappearance of her best friend Rachael Amber, and armed with Max’s new time-traveling powers the two girls set out to uncover the truth, rekindling their old friendship along the way.

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Max is a photographer, an artistic passion which is crucial to plot and theme.

Life is Strange is a narrative-heavy adventure game, with an emphasis on choice and consequence rather than conventional gameplay. It’s kind of a hybrid of a TV show and a videogame, released in five episodes over the course of 2015. The obvious gameplay antecedent is the hugely successful Walking Dead game, although I should admit I’ve never played it and don’t have a huge interest in that series, so Life is Strange was my first exposure to this style of game. I would say I broadly enjoyed the experience, although I found it very uneven and not without faults. However, at only £15 for a digital download, I would definitely recommend this game, and despite its roughness I really enjoyed my time playing.

So what is it that works for me about Life is Strange? For one thing it felt very fresh to me – a lot of the games I’ve played on Playstation 4 so far have been big-budget action adventure games squarely aimed at my demographic, all of which play quite similarly and draw from familiar sources. Life is Strange is similar to Walking Dead in terms of gameplay, but aesthetically and thematically it owes more to cult TV and movies like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko, and The Butterfly Effect. The graphics use an expressionistic, painterly style that favors colour and emotion over photorealism, with a palette taken straight from an angsty teen’s Instagram filters. The soundtrack is heavy on the acoustic guitars, and sometimes painfully indie, but I really appreciated that the development team bothered to license actual tracks for the game, helping to feel more like a TV show. The onscreen prompts and icons are rendered as the doodles that Max fills her journals and schoolbooks with, a small touch that I found infinitely more charming and expressive than the cold, utilitarian prompts many games give you – even Life is Strange’s gameplay furniture was taking me deeper into the head of the character I was inhabiting.

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Max and Chloe are the game’s heart.

Another thing that I thought was very fresh was the subject matter itself – although hunting for a missing teenage girl in small town America is incredibly overplayed, Rachael’s disappearance is mostly a device to get Max and Chloe to reconnect with each other, and their friendship is surprisingly nuanced. Chloe is an archetypical troubled teen, complete with blue hair and a sleeve of terrible tattoos, understandably seething with anger about her father’s death in a car accident and her mother Joyce’s subsequent remarriage to David, an authoritarian Iraq war veteran. Chloe is loud, impulsive, and often difficult to like even as you sympathize with her. Max is withdrawn and shy, likely the follower to Chloe’s leader when they were younger, and far more comfortable behind a camera than in front of one. Max left their town, Arcadia Bay, five years ago, and clearly made no effort to keep in touch with Chloe during that time. The girls’ friendship rekindles and grows over the course of the game, and the final chapters throw up some very tough decisions regarding Chloe that work because of the amount of time the writers spent on the pair. Both girls are excellently voiced and the thoughtful exploration of a female friendship is a real delightful novelty in videogaming.

The actual gameplay itself is mostly well-pitched, with a mixture of environmental exploration, puzzle-solving, and interactive conversations. Max’s rewind power is the main innovation over a game like Walking Dead, allowing the player to reverse time during a scene at any point. Although the gameplay never reaches the mind warping heights of Braid, the time-traveling puzzles are satisfying. Max remains in the same physical space while time rewinds, which is the solution to some puzzles, and she retains any knowledge she gained or items she picked up. I particularly enjoyed carrying information back in time with me, as this is something I’ve never experienced in an interactive story before. Once Max has let a scene play out once she can deploy her knowledge as a new option in conversations after rewinding, which you can use to scare, flatter, or slyly interrogate characters. There were definitely moments where the gameplay fell flat: Episode Two contains a lengthy hunt for five bottles across a junkyard, which I think might be the single largest interactive environment in the game, and this piece of plot-irrelevant busywork felt like it took half the episode (there’s even a nightmare sequence during the finale that explicitly makes fun of this puzzle). The game is mostly gentle, focused on experiencing the plot, challenging enough to be fun without becoming frustrating. There are two tedious stealth sections, because of course there are, although fortunately they’re not very long. I think the most I was tested by the game was an action scene very near the end, where Max must face an assailant while tied hand and foot – death is close at hand, and since you can’t ‘fail’ in the conventional sense, rewinds always being available, the developers seem happy to let this confrontation play out as a fast-paced trial and error session, with no clue which combination of actions at what intervals will allow Max to survive. I was expecting a scene like this at some point, but I still found it annoying and jarring compared to the meditative exploration that makes up most of Life is Strange.

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I hope you like looking at this fucking junkyard.

The time-travel is also central to the plot, and as is often the case with stories like this, problems emerge. I’d like to say first that I think the use of time-travel in a story heavy game with explicitly branching paths is a masterstroke, perfectly complementing the parallel universes interactive stories always create anyway. I’m skeptical with games like this as to how differently the story can actually go – you’re always promised a smorgasbord of options and snowballing decisions, but budget and time constraints prevent teams from developing a game with a hundred separate endings, and often the choices you make don’t matter a whole lot. Life is Strange, I’m sad to say, fell into this trap pretty hard. It’s not that it’s impossible to make choices that effect the outcome of episodes – several major characters can live or die depending on your actions – but late in the third episode, Max realises she can time-travel much further back into her past than she believed possible, and the story switches gears, with most of your choices up to that point being wiped clean by virtue of never having happened. I didn’t find this uninteresting – in fact the result of a new choice Max makes as a thirteen year old is one of the most moving and surprising scenes in the whole game, a section that had me pretty close to tears – but then this itself is erased by another time-jump, as I expected it would be. By the finale Max’s personal timeline seems to be disintegrating entirely, which again is interesting as a concept, but completely belies the idea that my choices in Episode One has any bearing on what happened during the ending. The final episode builds up to a single binary choice which anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko will have seen coming from miles away, and no action you take during the episode matters except this one decision.

My dissatisfaction was compounded by the fact that one ending to Life is Strange felt like the ‘real’ ending, and the other… didn’t. The ending I initially picked, based on how I authentically felt about Chloe and Max’s friendship, resulted in a scene all of fifty seconds long, abruptly followed by the credits, which left many loose ends. The other choice results in probably the most upsetting and moving scene in the whole game, followed by a lengthy series of still images in which the knife is dug ever deeper. At the end we see Max sitting alone, visibly changed by her experiences. There is no contest as to which ending is superior, aesthetically or thematically.

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Max repeatedly has dreams about this storm. I WONDER IF THIS WILL FEATURE IN THE FINALE?

It’s this unevenness that keeps Life is Strange from being truly great. Although I’ve praised the narrative so far, the actual dialogue itself is frequently misjudged, with some cringingly awful slang-speak from the teens (“Amazeballs” and “Go fuck your-selfie” were two highlights) and a couple of bizarre lines in the early episodes that made me question if the writers spoke english as a second language (it turns out the development team are French, so the answer to this is “Yes”). The plot is a whirlwind of cliches, melodrama, and straight-up plotholes that are swept briskly under the rug (I ended the game without even being certain if some major characters were alive or dead, and others were written out off-screen without any resolution to their stories). If you’ve seen Twin Peaks and Donnie Darko then you’ll predict a lot of the beats before they happen, and the final act gleefully wallows in the serial-killer schlock you’ve seen done a billion times. There’s a twist at the end of Episode Four so ludicrous and lacking in foreshadowing that I actually laughed out loud, although I later discovered I had missed a few clues during the early episodes by not quite being thorough enough in my quest to interact with every single object and character – an example of the open-ended exploratory gameplay undermining what was intended to be a dramatic and clever reveal where the pieces came together. An action scene during the finale falls into a similar trap. As mentioned before, the scene is very difficult, and can only be completed with repeated trial and error; you have to restart the scene so often, and watch another character be murdered so many times, that it crosses the line from drama into comedy. I ended up howling with laughter as the character was repeatedly overpowered and shot dead, and I doubt this was the intended effect of the scene. Gameplay and story are working at cross purposes here.

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The design of the characters is fine, but their facial animation is lacking.

I’ve mentioned the pleasing quality of the graphics already, and although the game is beautiful as a still image it’s frequently displeasing in motion, thanks to the appalling animation work. Digital actors – which is what this game hinges on – need exceptionally good animators, especially working on their faces, if they’re going to convincingly emote. Half Life 2, a game more than a decade old at this point, pioneered such techniques, and still looks great to my eyes today. The characters in Valve’s title emote; their expressions alter during conversations, sometimes very subtly. They don’t look ‘real’, but they sell me on the story. Life is Strange’s cast do not live up to this standard. I found them mask-like and sometimes downright unsettling. Their lip movements don’t even remotely match the dialogue they’re supposed to be delivering. Everyone’s hair is rigid and plasticine textured, even when submerged in water, or in the midst of the freak storm that strikes during the finale. I’m sympathetic to the fact this is an indie game and that the time-frame and budget are much smaller than studios like Valve work with, but convincing digital actors are so unbelievably crucial to an interactive story, and it’s strange to me that they fall so far from what they could be, and even stranger that the story worked for me regardless. The voice work is uniformly strong, and I think this is what sells the drama.

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An arty, insecure teenage girl isn’t the traditional pick for a videogame protagonist, but Max worked great for me and I’d love to see more stories like this.

Ultimately, what drew me into Life is Strange is Max herself. Her voice work is stellar – essential, since you hear her voice a lot, both inside and outside her head – and her personality felt nuanced and believable. Her perceptions and memories are the only thing that stays consistent throughout the entire narrative, and I enjoyed the insight into her thoughts you get from looking at almost anything around you. I liked Max, and I wanted to experience her story. I liked guiding her through the episodes, trying to guess how she would react to the different characters, and watching her deal with some extremely heavy shit. Alongside the time-travel stuff, the plot doesn’t shy away from taboo areas like bullying, suicide, grief, victim blaming, euthanasia, and sexual assault. Max wants to help people, but even when you can rewind time, finding the sequence of actions that will punish the wicked and heal the innocent is much harder than it first appears. I felt that she learned something about herself as a moral actor, and became tougher and more confident, a long way from the polaroid obsessed wallflower we meet in the game’s opening. In a genre where the hero’s narrative arc often involves them getting better at fighting monsters, this was an enjoyable change.

The other characters, although seemingly a big grab-bag of teen movie cliches, also turn out to have deeper waters than may initially be apparent. The popular kids in Arcadia, a group of party-obsessed wreckheads calling themselves the Vortex Club, are snotty and unwelcoming, and if you reflect that bad attitude back at them then this is all you’ll ever see of that crowd. If you treat them with kindness, you may find yourself surprised by how characters like hipster queen Victoria respond. Some of the aggressive, authoritarian men in the story also turn out to have deeper and more tender emotions than they want to let on, and I accidentally treated some of these characters badly because I assumed they were clearly villains. It isn’t Shakespeare, but it goes to show that spending two minutes thinking beyond a cliche can work wonders in your narrative.

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The level of detail in the environments is admirable.

Overall, I think Life is Strange is a classic example of something being more than the sum of its parts. It’s a story-driven game with often awful writing, that still managed to make me tear up, a mess of cliches and inconsistencies that still had me eagerly hitting ‘next chapter’ even when it was two in the morning. I downloaded it out of mild curiosity and ended up playing the whole thing in three days flat. At its best Life is Strange gave me experiences no other game ever has, experiences I didn’t think videogames were even interested in even trying to provide – a stand-out moment is when Max awakens in Chloe’s room, having spent the night there for the first time in five years. Low morning sun pours in through the attic windows, bathing the room in golden light. A soft guitar track gently plays as Max looks up at the ceiling, Chloe still asleep beside her. You’re surrounded by teenage ephemera – pot smoking apparatus and band posters, skate stickers all over the wall. You’re in control, and Max won’t get up until you choose to – but the game is perfectly happy to let you lie there, cocooned in music and sunlight, the camera panning slowly across the room. It feels like being young, somehow. I don’t know how they did it. Games often claim to be cinematic, but sometimes I think they’re aping the wrong movies.

Life is Strange isn’t a masterpiece. I rolled my eyes at least once per chapter, and two of the supposedly dramatic climaxes elicited laughter. Most of my narrative choices felt irrelevant, and the ending seemed strange and half-baked. However, I think it’s a fascinating game, one that I responded to far beyond my expectations. Most games never touch me, despite budgets far larger and writers more familiar with the nuances of the english language. This one did, and that’s not something I say often. If you felt remotely interested by this game, I’d urge you to try it for yourself.

The ‘Southern Reach’ Trilogy

Area X is the world’s biggest secret – a mysterious and desolate stretch of American coastline which has been declared an ecological disaster zone and sealed away from the public for thirty years. The truth, unknown even to the army units that guard the border of this restricted zone, is stranger still. Some sort of supernatural event occurred three decades ago, and every resident of what has become Area X vanished overnight. Anyone attempting to cross the invisible border between Area X and the outside world will vanish too. The only entrance into this strange wilderness is through a doorway of white light, and once this threshold is passed there’s no guarantee of making it back alive. The Southern Reach, the ultra-secret government agency founded to investigate Area X, has sent eleven expeditions through this gateway over the decades. Some ended in inexplicable firefights or mass suicide. The eleventh expedition returned without any memory of what happened to them during their mission, and succumbed within weeks to an aggressive cancer that seemed to generate from every organ in their bodies. So far there has been no twelfth expedition.

This is the set-up for Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, all three books of which were published last year. Since it’s my belief he wrote them all as one piece of work (and the unorthodox release schedule seems to bear this out), I’m going to review all three volumes – Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – in one post. These books were some of the most talked about sci-fi releases last year, and Annihilation won the 2014 Nebula award for best novel. I’ll give a brief outline of each book, and then discuss what I thought of the trilogy as a whole. 

Annihilation is the shortest and most self-contained of the novels, and would work just fine as its own story without the follow-ups. It takes the form of an expedition journal written by a nameless female biologist, a member of an all-female twelfth expedition sent into Area X, a supernatural disaster zone located in North Florida (we’re never actually told this, but VanderMeer said he took inspiration for the novels’ landscape from the St Marks Wildlife Refuge in Northern Florida, and Area X’s flora and fauna, including alligators, seem to bear this out). The novel opens with the female scientists already in the field, discovering a strange tunnel-like structure which seems to spiral down into the earth. They investigate the structure’s interior and we’re treated to the expedition unravelling into madness and fear.

Authority is longer and seems less well-received by readers, although it might’ve been my favorite entry in the series. We switch locations from Area X to the Southern Reach, the organization that investigates it. The Director of the Southern Reach has vanished, and Control – a young spy – has been parachuted in by the Reach’s parent organization, Central, to take the reins and find out what exactly is going on. This book is a much slower burn than Annihilation, and I can see why the change from wilderness adventure story to office-cubicle drama might grate on some people, but I really liked seeing the mysterious Southern Reach from the inside – I had presumed the Reach would remain shadowy antagonists throughout the series, but we meet all the personnel right off the bat and they’re not what I expected at all. The threat in this novel is less obvious, but Control is in much deeper waters than he knows, and it becomes clear that while the Southern Reach has been gazing into the abyss, the abyss has also been gazing into them.

Acceptance is the finale, and for reasons of not wanting to spoil the plot is really difficult to talk about. After the explosive ending to Authority, a thirteenth expedition crosses the border into Area X, searching for answers. Whereas the previous volumes were centered on one character each, Acceptance is all over the place, with four narrators speaking from four different places in the timeline. This can be pretty jarring at times – I really connected with Control and wanted to know what was going to happen to him, but the final novel was much more interested in telling me about the doings of two other characters, one of whom I had presumed was a villain. We learn more about the creation of Area X, and more about the internal workings of Central, the CIA-like government security organization that may be the home of the real evil in the series. No single character finds all the answers, but by following all four stories we begin to see an outline of the big picture. I thought Acceptance was probably the weakest of the three novels, mainly due to this lack of focus, but I have to admire the way it threw me some curve-balls – I especially enjoyed learning more about Lowry, the only survivor of the first expedition into Area X. It’s difficult to end a trilogy that leans so much on the unknown and inexplicable, since your audience will expect you to reveal some explanation for what has been happening to the characters, but explain too much or reveal an explanation that’s unsatisfying and you will lose them (I felt the Hyperion novels, which I also read this year, suffered a little from this during the final stages). VanderMeer clearly never intended to fully explain Area X, but I thought the pieces of answers we got in the final volume were mostly satisfying. 

My overwhelming impression of these books is that they’re not what I was expecting. From my descriptions of their plots they may sound like pretty generic sci-fi thrillers, but the trilogy really doesn’t play out that way at all. Large portions of the final novel are devoted to the daily routine of a lighthouse keeper in the 1970s. The trilogy isn’t easy to catergorise, moving from adventure story to meditation on the unknown to something that comes off almost like nature writing – the landscape of Area X is now totally free from man-made pollution, and is described in Annihilation almost in Eden-like terms at certain points. I was reminded of photographs taken by expeditions into Chernobyl. I think ultimately the novels are about mystery and the unknown and the human response to that – Area X is essentially the biggest unknown on the planet, and the characters and institutions within the narrative react to this in different ways. At the end of the trilogy the characters are mostly no closer to understanding Area X than they were at the start, although some of them are learning to live with this. The supernatural elements are mainly employed in order to make the characters and reader face the limits of their own knowledge. There certainly are moments of balls-out supernatural horror, including a scene in Authority that made my skin crawl when reading, but a great deal of the narrative is in character moments and observation of nature. As I’ve said, Annihilation is the most conventional horror-story of the three books – an isolated scientific expedition come up against events that are totally inexplicable, lose their shit – and has echoes of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but the following novels are not really structured like this. Authority is partly about struggling to live up to your family’s idea of who you should be – Control isn’t cut out for the spy work he’s been given, and it’s clear his mother, placed high-up in Central, is the only reason he’s in the job at all. Both the first two novels are about characters who struggle to understand Area X, while Acceptance is about learning to live with the unknown, with death, and although it contains one truly grotesque scene it’s not much of a horror story either.

I wouldn’t recommend these books to anyone who’s uncomfortable with narrative ambiguity. I definitely had some moments where I felt like I was reading through the novel equivalent of Lost – an enormous amount of wheel-spinning to disguise the fact that the author didn’t have a clue what Area X was or why it was there. Having reached the end of the trilogy, I feel this isn’t the case, but if you’re hoping someone will come in at the end and say “We worked it out, this is an extra-dimensional portal and it’s turning our world into Planet Xurbgug”, you’re out of luck. I think VanderMeer mostly gets away with this ambiguity. If there was an internal logic to some of the events that occurred within Area X, they were still a mystery to me by the end, although some of the other strangenesses observed during Annihilation do turn out to have good explanations for them in later books. I really liked how Area X is handled while the narrators are inside it though – VanderMeer really captures that there’s something off about the place, despite it mostly looking like Floridian wilderness. The characters rarely see anything supernatural, but there’s a consistent sense of things being askew, that something might be happening in the corner of your eye. There’s a motif of cancer throughout the trilogy, and you get the feeling that every cell of every creature in Area X might be affected or changed somehow, pretending to be itself as long as someone is looking at it.

The prose otherwise is totally adequate and does the job. I can’t remember a phrase or image that stuck with me just by itself; this isn’t Nabokov, and if you want something to enjoy for language alone I’d look elsewhere. I think they’re more mood pieces – the sentences themselves aren’t special individually, but the overall effect they add up to is quite different to anything else I’ve read recently. If you’re looking for something that goes outside the box and don’t mind reading a lot of nature writing along with your sci-fi, I’d recommend this trilogy.

Shadow of the Colossus – Tenth Anniversary Retrospective

Shadow of the Colossus is unquestionably a masterpiece and possibly my favourite videogame of all time, and with the tenth anniversary of its release imminent I thought it would be nice to write about what the game does right and why it’s still so important to me, both from the perspective of a storyteller and more generally as someone who likes interactive art. I’ll be talking about the game in its entirety, including the ending, so fair warning. If you haven’t played the game I’d strongly recommend that you do so.

Death is ever-present in videogames, partly because it’s an easily understood failure state that the player will reach if they play poorly, but the list of games that deal with death and grief as a major story theme is smaller, and games that attack the subject of loss as subtly and effectively as Shadow does are very few. The game uses some of the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ tropes that have been present in videogames since their inception (there’s a magic sword, huge monsters, a girl you’re trying to save), and initially appears to be a familiar power-fantasy romp, but as you progress it becomes apparent that the game is about something more.   

This promo screenshot was the first image of the game I ever saw.

This promo screenshot was the first image of the game I ever saw, a striking depiction of the battle with the second colossus.

Like its predecessor Ico, Shadow of the Colossus is an exercise in minimalist design, and the story is appropriately minimalist as well, with all but one of the characters introduced during the game’s opening cinematic. The game begins without music, only the sound of wind, as the protagonist Wander makes his way across the iconic bridge into the Forbidden Lands, mounted on his horse Agro. At the entrance to the Shrine of Worship – the game’s most important location – the horse shies, tellingly unwilling to enter, but Wander urges him on. The Shrine is enormous and cathedral-like, one of the very few artificial structures you’ll find in the Forbidden Lands and by far the largest, and Wander rides on through the building, eventually coming on a sunlit altar. Wander places the bundle he’s been riding with onto the altar, revealing in the process our third character, Mono. She’s dressed entirely in white, beautiful even in death, and as she lies in the light a disembodied and clearly supernatural being begins to speak from above, a mixture of both male and female voices, noting immediately that Wander possesses an ancient sword. This is Dormin, the final character we meet in the opening. Wander says that he has heard that Dormin can control the souls of the dead, and asks that the being restore Mono to life, saying she has been sacrificed as she had ‘a cursed fate’. Wander is told that this resurrection is possible, but first Dormin will require that he seek out and slay the sixteen colossi that inhabit the Forbidden Lands. The entity also mentions that the price Wander pays may be heavy, a very obvious clue to the Faustian nature of the deal Wander is making, but the warning doesn’t stop him. He accepts, and the game begins as you ride out into the Forbidden Lands, mounted on Agro. All of this happens during a cinematic less than eight minutes in length, and until the end of the game this is essentially all the direct story-telling we get

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Wander carries Mono to the altar.

What struck me immediately, and still does, is how much is created with so little. We aren’t told who Wander is, what his relation to Mono is (she could either be his sister or his lover, as I don’t find it credible that any other bonds would motivate the actions he takes during the course of the game. I tend to lean towards lover or wife, since this would resonate with the ‘rescue the princess’ trope we’re so familiar with, where part of the hero’s reward is implicitly romantic or sexual in nature. However, as far as I’m aware Shadow never comes down on side or the other, so we’re left to assume.), what the Forbidden Land is or where Wander has come there from, why the place is forbidden, or what exactly Dormin is or how Wander knows about it. None of these details matter, and we can pick up what’s important about the story immediately. Mono is dead and Wander will do anything to get her back – he seems to have gone beyond bravery into a kind of madness. When Dormin warns him that the consequences of his actions may be dire, his sole response is a quiet ‘It doesn’t matter’. We don’t know exactly what Dormin is, but its supernatural nature is obvious, as is the fact that the being is probably dangerous (it’s not immediately clear that destroying the colossi will free Dormin and restore its former power, but the clues are all there). Both Wander and Dormin want something desperately, and they are locked together by their promise. We’re given just enough information to set up the story’s main conflict, and no more than that. All I can say is that I wish more games could exercise such a lightness of touch.

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The Forbidden Lands.

The bulk of the gameplay consists of this: Wander seeks out the sixteen colossi, and kills them. There are no other enemies, no NPCs, no shopkeepers. The only living things in the Forbidden Lands are the player and Agro the horse, along with some lizards and birds. I’m not entirely certain the colossi themselves can be counted as living beings, although they certainly move and think. They are among gaming’s strangest and most memorable creatures, with art direction that I think is unrivaled anywhere in the gaming canon (Shadow’s lead designer interviewed well over 500 candidates before he found an artist he was willing to work with on the colossus designs), and provide the main obstacle in Wander’s quest to restore Mono’s soul. Although unquestionably antagonists in the sense that they stand in opposition to the protagonist, I’ve never been comfortable thinking of the colossi as enemies or villains in the conventional sense, not least because many of them won’t even attack the player when they first see him.

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Colossi sketches from the official artbook, showcasing the wide variety of designs. Two can fly, one swims, and one colossus burrows.

Each colossus is unique, although they follow a few overarching design rules and have some aesthetic features that all hold in common. They’re a strange mixture of human, animal, vegetable, and mineral, calling to mind not just giants and trolls but also the living statues found in some Greek myths, as well as Tolkien’s Ents. They have flesh, it’s true, although the game makes it difficult to tell if what covers their bodies is meant to be fur or moss, and every colossus has elements of stonework or masonry as an integral part of their form. Most follow either humanoid shapes or appear to be gigantic stone animals, although one late-game colossus, the flying sandworm, has an abstract shape that’s difficult to map onto any existing animal. Each one inhabits its own specific portion of the Forbidden Land, from cave systems to deserts to an enormous submerged city of some kind. The battles against them act less as the traditional boss fights found in most games, and more a combination of a puzzle and a rock-climbing challenge, with Wander able to scale their bodies in search of a weak point he can attack with the ancient sword. Although some colossi are quite aggressive and provide a more conventional combat challenge (especially the smallest two: the tiger-like ‘temple guardian’ colossus is barely larger than Agro, and puts up a ferocious fight), others barely seem to notice Wander at all, and their efforts to stop him from ending their lives amount to little more than a pitiful bellow and vain attempts to shake him off. Felling a colossus results in no triumphant music, just a scene of the mighty creature falling lifeless to the ground. Returning to the scene of their death later in the game will reveal that the colossus has turned into a mound of earth and rubble, giving weight to my feeling that they’re less actual living beings and more the Forbidden Land itself, given a kind of life.

One of my favourite designs is the 'knight' colossus, a formidable foe who echoes Wander.

One of my favourite designs is the ‘knight’ colossus, a formidable foe who visually echoes Wander.

The experience of fighting these beings is mythic in the purest sense of the word. Many videogames draw from the work of Tolkien, who in turn was inspired by Anglo Saxon and Viking myths and legends, but for me Shadow has always felt like it’s pulling directly from these mythic sources, taking water from the mountain spring rather than the same fantasy reservoir other games drink from. The oldest myth we still have knowledge of – Gilgamesh – is explicitly about death and grief, and in it Gilgamesh tries to find a way to rescue his dearest friend from death, facing monsters and other challenges along the way. Shadow isn’t trying to be realistic, instead aiming for the same kind of primal space that Gilgamesh or Orpheus’ stories occupy, and for me it succeeds. The sixteen colossi feel very much like they’ve stepped from one of these stories, the kind of guardian spirits of the land that were worshipped in pagan cultures. Sometimes to me they feel like death itself: not malicious but uncaring, beyond our understanding, enormous dark beings watching over an empty land. In a game about a character who is trying to unwind death, they make fitting adversaries.

With each colossus that falls the game moves towards its final act. The sense as you progress is not necessairly one of triumph, as I have said, but of gathering melancholy and doom. As each colossus is slain, a dark energy will emerge from their body and enter Wander, causing him to fall to the ground. Each infusion of energy results in him looking paler and thinner, with darkening eyes and blue veins in his face. Every time you reawaken at the Shrine of Worship after a victory there are more and more shadow figures surrounding your body, watching you sleep. The only visual clue that provides any hope of a happy resolution is the growing number of white birds that settle around the altar where Mono lies.

A final set of actors is introduced in a brief scene after the fall of the twelfth colossus. We are given a short wordless scene of masked horsemen, riding swiftly towards an unknown goal. Dormin begins urging greater haste on the player, indicating that he is aware of the approaching warriors.

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A troll-like colossus.

To me the final colossus is one of the most interesting designs in the game, although it’s far from my favorite section to play. By this point it should be reasonably clear to the player that killing the colossi is not a good idea, and some people may have guessed that whatever spell keeps Dormin imprisoned within the Shrine of Worship is being broken by Wander’s actions. There is a deep sense of foreboding as the player approaches the final colossus, and the mood is further darkened by the death of Agro, your faithful horse, during the last stretch of the approach to the battle. Agro is the only interactive character who is in any way sympathetic to Wander during the course of the game – the horse is deeply important to gameplay, and some colossi can’t be defeated without his help – and his loss here has always hit me very hard whenever I play. The horse throws Wander to safety as a bridge the pair are crossing begins to collapse, which serves to both sever you from any hope of retreat and remove your only friend from the narrative. The final colossus is the largest of any you’ve faced, and attacks ferociously with ranged energy blasts from the moment it sees you – something I’ve always interpreted as a final desperate attempt to prevent the seal being broken. The colossus is humanoid, and seems to have the form of a large robed figure, with some kind of restraining structure built around it to prevent the being from moving. Although many fans refer to this colossus as ‘the magician’, I’ve always seen it as female, and possibly its shape is intended to mimic Mono’s. It just seems appropriate to me that the final challenge to overcome would take the shape of the woman Wander is trying to resurrect. As for the structure constructed around the colossus, I have no idea what purpose this was intended to serve or why the entity is prevented from moving. We’re really given no clues as to what the colossi were originally intended for (aside from sealing Dormin away), or who built them, but there’s something about the positioning of the final colossus that makes me think of a watchtower, or maybe some kind of military installation, as opposed to the other colossi who are mostly encountered in their lairs or wandering the wilderness. The creatures are clearly animated by a fragment of Dormin’s essence, but the final colossus is the first time when I started to wonder if the vanished civilization which inhabited in the Forbidden Lands actually used the colossi for some purpose. Again, it’s not possible to know.

Sheltering from the final colossus. This creature's design echoes both a watchtower and a woman in a flowing dress.

Sheltering from the final colossus. This creature’s design echoes both a watchtower and a woman in a flowing dress.

With all the colossi slain, Shadow’s final sequence begins. The masked soldiers, led by a robed figure who the internet informs me is named Lord Emon, force their way into the Shrine of Worship, just before Wander makes his reappearance in the main hall (the player is returned to the Shrine after the death of each colossus). Wander is in a terrible state, surrounded by shadows, and Emon orders one of the soldiers to kill him, saying he has been ‘possessed by the dead’. Wander is fatally stabbed, but this seems to be the moment Dormin, whose divided body the player hass been freeing as the colossi fell, has been waiting for, and the entity possesses Wander completely, revealing itself to be a towering being of darkness, horned and clawed, strongly resembling Satan. At this point the player is unexpectedly given back control, in a stroke of genius, and the final battle against Lord Emon and his men begins. After hours of nimbly fighting against enormous dark beings, clambering over their bodies and driving a sword into their weakest points like a flea feasting, the player is suddenly cast as the colossus, battling against a swarm of tiny soldiers. Intriguingly the player does not feel powerful at this point, as Wander/Dormin is sluggish and intentionally awkward to control, and you’re given no explanation of what various buttons will do. As you desperately flail around the Shrine, Lord Emon and his soldiers always just out of reach, it’s impossible not to feel an even deeper sympathy with the colossi you’ve spent  the game killing.

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Lord Emon and Dormin.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not a fight you can win. Lord Emon is clearly a sorcerer of some stripe, and he casts your ancient sword into a pool of water within the Shrine, creating a whirlpool of howling light that pulls Dormin’s essence from Wander’s body and begins to draw both of them into the pool. The player is given control one final time, this time desperately trying to reach the altar where Mono still lies dead as the hurricane of white light pulls you away from her. Again, giving the player control here is a stroke of genius, as it enables us to experience Wander’s grief rather than being shown it. Although videogames can’t match up to novels when it comes to giving us a character’s interiority, one thing they excel in is making us personally identify with the character, something other storytelling media have to work hard for. When I move the analogue stick, Wander moves too, and a connection between us is built moment to moment almost without my noticing. When both of us are struggling to reach Mono, I am not just shown or told of his desperation, I experience it as well, since the apparent goal of this section is impossible to achieve. Even with a fully upgraded stamina meter, the player cannot resist the pull of the warding spell Emon created, and is drawn into the pool. Lord Emon and the soldiers flee the Shrine, destroying the bridge behind them and sealing the Forbidden Lands from the outside forever.

This is a bleak ending – the protagonist is shown as the pawn of a dark spirit, a naive youth who nearly unleashed an ancient evil because he couldn’t cope with loss. Fortunately the final scenes give us some hope. Mono finally awakens – it seems that Dormin kept its end of the bargain after all – and is greeted by Agro, who apparently survived his fall into the river. I’m a little torn on this move, as I felt that the horse’s ‘death scene’ was one of the most affecting moments in the game, and discovering he (implausibly) survived the fall felt a little cheap to me. It’s not that I’m unhappy to see him but I couldn’t help wishing the loss had been more permanent. Mono and Agro discover Wander in the dried up pool, transformed into an infant with tiny horns. Taking the child in her arms, Mono ascends into the upper reaches of the Shrine, and the game ends with the three characters emerging into a high walled garden.

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Mono cradles a reborn Wander.

Shadow of the Colossus, as I’ve said, is maybe my favourite game of all time, and I enjoy it on many levels, from aesthetic to gameplay. I’ve barely touched on some aspects of the game, such as the deliberately awkward controls that will cause Wander to occasionally stumble or clumsily fall, a design decision which hammers home his inexperience and makes the colossus battles even more daunting. As I said, one of the things I admire most is the game’s dedication to ambiguity and mystery (after the ending many questions still remain. Why did Emon and his men wear masks, and is there a reason Wander and Mono do not? To what entity is the Shrine of Worship dedicated? Is it Dormin? How it did it come to be trapped there? Were these desolate lands once its kingdom?), and the laser-focus on the themes of loss and grief. The Forbidden Lands themselves are a vision of loss made into a place, a trackless wasteland of sand and stone, with the occasional mute ruin submerged in earth or water. Riding through them I can’t help but think of the poem Ozymandius, and the fallen colossi could easily serve as stand-ins for the poem’s broken statue. A ruined world is hardly an innovative setting for a videogame, and one could write an entire essay about the ruined structure in videogames, so prevalent is the trope, but I can’t think of a ruined world more beautiful or evocative of the game’s driving theme than the world of Shadow. Wander is driven less by traditional heroism than a madness, a refusal to deal with grief, mourn Mono, and learn to live again. I’ll admit this may be too neat a piece of analysis, but it seems appropriate to me that a game with a protagonist who can’t let go of a deceased loved one has gameplay that literally revolves around not letting go, as the colossi must be desperately clung to during their encounters, and I’ve already talked about the final segment in which you can’t claw your way towards Mono no matter how hard you try. Dormin is described as having control over the souls of the dead, but even this being seems only to desire a return to life. The titular colossus and its shadow are both surely death itself, and Wander’s actions in the face of such an adversary, no matter how misguided, are difficult not to sympathise with.

Although it lacks conventionally deep characters or a complex plot, Shadow of the Colossus is to my mind a triumph of interactive storytelling and has remained in my thoughts for a decade at this point. It still remains a benchmark of videogaming for me, and despite my spilling thousands of words in its praise I still feel I haven’t adequately described the experience. For its strange beauty, its innovative gameplay, and its understated, haunting story, the game stands alone.

The Call to Adventure

Hello and welcome to this newly launched blog. My name is Leo Hunt, I’m a professional author of YA fiction, and I started this blog page in order to make longer form posts about subjects that interest me, mostly related to storytelling. I don’t want to make any promises about how often this place will update, but I’m hoping to provide a steady trickle of posts.

I’m hoping to cover storytelling in novels, graphic fiction, film, and videogames. I don’t expect the blog will delve too deeply into academic analysis, and I’m hoping to pitch it more as someone who tells stories for a living talking about work from other creators that he admires.

I may also talk about the business of writing fiction on occasion.

Anyway, this is only meant as an introductory post. More substantial content will follow soon.