Thursday, July 6, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol. I.

A scene from Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata.

"Inventory Management" is the period of rest and thoughtfulness that occurs during breaks in the action, in which we organize and clear out all the unnecessary clutter we've accumulated during our adventures. This column, like its sister column Critic's Notes & Frames, embraces this spirit of enjoyable tidying up by acting as a receptacle for all the reviews, thoughts, and musings about games and gaming culture that wouldn't fit anywhere else. -- Justin Cummings
I jumped into director Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata without ever having played the original 2010 title Nier. I didn’t think I’d have any trouble, given the seemingly hyperbolic reaction the game had received by that point, with critics and fans often citing it as their favourite game of the year so far. I raised an single eyebrow at this – I mean, Breath of the Wild came out this year – but it was enough to warrant giving it a shot, anyway.

I was very surprised by my own reaction. In fact, I’d say that Nier: Automata is an action role-playing game whose primary tool is surprise, a tool it leverages against the player in amazingly creative ways. I’ve played action RPGs before. I’ve played games developed by Platinum Games before. I’ve played games that featured dystopian sci-fi settings and “androids who learn to experience emotion” storylines before. I’ve played Japanese shoot-‘em-ups – or, excuse me, shmups – since I was very small (although I was never any good at them). So at first, there was little that Automata appeared to offer that seemed new or fresh or interesting. But then I stopped pre-judging it, bought it, actually sat down to play it, and as the hours ticked by, I became wholly and irretrievably engrossed. I’ve beaten Nier: Automata once, and I’m a few hours into my second playthrough. Twenty minutes after I watched the credits roll and started a new game – which shifts perspective so I was playing through the same campaign again, but as a different character – I had already seen the credits again.


So, yeah – it’s still surprising me.

Automata is profoundly reflective of Taro’s enigmatic personal philosophies. This is the kind of game that could only come from a person so naturally allergic to traditional thinking that they would rather wear a hideous mask at public events than show their face. Automata presents itself as a palatable action game, with exciting slice-and-dice combat that flows seamlessly into shoot-n’-dodge bullet-hell gameplay, but this does not define it. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, its uniqueness reveals itself to you – in the way the gameplay systems spiral outward in unforeseeable directions, in the way the familiar, almost facile narrative premise begins to tear unexpectedly at your heart, or in the way the form and structure of modern games in and of themselves are deconstructed. Through all this, Automata never loses focus on you as the player, and the primacy of your experience. At every step, Automata lets you choose – and gently asks you very difficult questions about why you chose the way you did. Its nested revelations are manifold and marvelous. It is a startlingly profound, artful experience, and it absolutely deserves the praise it continues to inspire.

But this kind of game, a transcendent, genre-defying rebel yell, can be exhausting. It’s good that there are Mario Karts in the world to balance out my gaming diet with something more relaxing on the palate – not to mention something that helps justify my purchase of a Nintendo Switch. I never bought Mario Kart 8 on the WiiU, so now that the fully-fledged Deluxe version has been released on Switch, with all the game’s DLC add-ons included, I felt it was finally worth the purchase. It hasn’t disappointed, delivering all the glossy, satisfying kart-based racing shenanigans it says on the tin. This must be the apex of the series, though – never has the formula been so highly polished, with huge amounts of gameplay variety, high-res visuals with a butter-smooth framerate, expansive and engaging tracks, and a roster of racers filled to bursting with lovable, expressive Nintendo characters (including Tanuki Mario from Super Mario Bros 3, whose little raccoon tail streaming off the back of a speeding motorbike is a tonic I did not know I needed).Of course, where the game really shines is in multiplayer, but I’ve found that balancing heady, cerebral, twitch-skill sessions of Nier with relaxing, cheerful rounds of Mario Kart, where I can triple-star a Grand Prix cup and feel like I’ve accomplished something, is equally soothing to the soul. And the fact that the Switch lets me do it in bed, or on the bus, or on my lunch break at work with friends sure doesn’t hurt either.

When Nintendo isn’t busy perfecting their old IPs, they’re coming out swinging with exciting new content like the recently-released Arms, also exclusive to the Switch (finally, the library’s growing). It’s a competitive fighter in which a cast of brilliantly designed characters with stretchy springs for arms bash, slam, and slap at one another for fun and glory. So, yes, it’s exactly as silly as it sounds–but the Big N isn’t out here making games that are all frills and no skills. Arms is a surprisingly adept fighting game, disguising a deep well of strategy under its rather ridiculous exterior. There’s a large number of unlockable fists for your fighters, who share the same pool of these spring-powered weapons but who must unlock them separately – meaning that the combination of fighter and arms becomes a tactical metagame in itself, propelling you into further, longer, more intense gameplay sessions in an effort to reap all these unlockable rewards. For a game with such an odd presentation, it’s proving to be very muscular, like a deceptively meek-looking boxer with a devastating hook. I can’t wait to play more.

 The final moments of Awesome Games Done Quick 2017, applauding the $2.2 million donation total.

Even if I weren’t busy with so many games, there’s plenty happening in the zeitgeist to keep me occupied. There might be nothing more distinctive to the world of gaming than the phenomenon of speedrunning, with the organization called Games Done Quick cementing itself as the grand coliseum of this fledgling cultural curiosity, and their live streams have dominated my viewing hours for the past week. Several times a year they host live-streamed speedrunning charity events, the latest of which is Summer Games Done Quick (or SGDQ), which takes donations from eager viewers to charitable organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and the American Cancer Society in return for some of the most mind-boggling gaming content you could imagine.

Speedrunners beat video games as fast as humanly possible, and do so in the most unpredictable and entertaining ways. By abusing glitches, breaking the intended sequence of a game, or simply by perfecting near-superhuman reflex skills and hand-eye coordination, runners are able to inject new meaning and context to games which were never intended to be played in this way. There’s a unique and breathless joy to seeing a favourite game torn asunder by a skilled runner, which broadens your understanding and appreciation of something you might have only superficially experienced.

But GDQ events are much more than the sum of their parts. As runners perform their intensely practiced work, providing commentary and context for what they’re doing and why, the event announcer will step in to read donation messages from viewers. This creates a near-constant connection between the audience and the action, reinforcing the very real feeling of community that quickly develops in this environment. It’s all based on a shared passion for games both classic and new, and the foundation of do-gooding that drives the event. It’s an enthusiastic, infectious, high-energy atmosphere which becomes exponentially compounded by the chance of seeing a world-record run happen live on stream in front of a massive audience. GDQ events are blistering showcases of ultra-elite skill, but they’re also a testament to the loving, inclusive, passionate community of gamers who defy the poisonous behavior of gaming culture’s vocal minority by coming together to raise millions of dollars for charity every year.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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