Tranquility in the Wasteland: The Sobering Impact of Mad Max‘s Photo Mode

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This piece was originally written for Haywire Magazine, go check them out!

For me, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, Mad Max was not a thinking game. At least, not at first: what I wanted most from Avalanche Studios’ 2015 open-world action title was a pretty pastime with dopamine-inducing resource collecting and vehicular combat. Mad Max‘s solid gameplay loop of driving, bashing, punching, searching, gathering, and upgrading meant the violence easily lulled me into a flow state, but instead of stacking tetrominos I was attaching a monstrous bullbar to increase my car’s attack stat. 

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The Triumphs and Failures of God of War

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Kratos is a Spartan warrior turned god who’s fled the Greek Isles after enacting a destructive revenge quest. Seeking refuge in the Nordic tundra, he falls for Faye, a woman with a hidden origin, and fathers a boy named Atreus in a secluded cabin. Kratos barks orders at him, but not much else, and the pair are forced into reckoning their distant relationship when Faye dies. The story opens with Kratos assembling a funeral pyre, from which he bags and attaches Faye’s ashes to his belt. Father and son set out to complete Faye’s final request, to be scattered from the highest peak in all the realms. Not long into the journey, however, Kratos finds he’s merely traded one adversarial pantheon for another, and their ritualistic journey is caught in the crossfire between wrathful figures of Norse mythology.

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Some Games I Played in 2018

December has always been a reflective month for me. In the opening third, I turned another year older. Twenty-seven. Then the new year approaches. Twenty-nine-teen.

Twenty-eight-teen was a strange one. I became really sad, but then got a little better. I learned a lot about myself. I changed careers. I wrote some things, read some things, and played some things too.

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Florence

With bellies full of french toast and coffee, Stephanie and I opted to lounge away the hours until Thanksgiving dinner with a mobile game called Florence. It’s a series of bright, colorful vignettes about finding, exploring, and re-defining love. Playing Florence is like eating a bag of Skittles, with each panel a sudden burst of an ambiguously colorful flavor. Green apple meet cute. Strawberry move-in day. Citrus growth in opposite directions. Lemon move-out day.

It’s a lovely and genuine experience about the work that goes into relationships. We discussed out loud the minutia of unpacking. Will he ever use that cricket bat? Well, the stuffed elephant has to have the top shelf. He needs space for his record collection. This made the reverse that much more bittersweet, stuffing away the objects we so lovingly placed.

Florence will only take an hour of your time, if that, and costs less than a latte. It’s available on iOS and Android. Check it out!

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Finding Hope in The Dark Room: How Life Is Strange Helped Expose My Depression and Offer a Path to Recovery

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This piece was originally published on Into the Spine. Check them out!

Content warning: depression, suicide, anxiety

I played Life Is Strange when I was at my most vulnerable. I was stuck in The Dark Room, the twisted subterranean photography studio in Dontnod’s 2015 episodic adventure game. Like Max Caulfield, the thoughtful protagonist, my life choices, insecurities, and fears were laid out in scrambled polaroids and I was forced to confront them. The camera was turned on me, the lone subject of a self-portrait, and I felt ugly.

I was powerless and deep underground. I felt a storm approaching, one that would destroy everything I loved, and I couldn’t escape. If by some miracle I resurfaced, I started doubting if anyone would even listen. My spirit was in heavy fragments and I would need to carry the weight or let it crush me.

Life Is Strange brought introspective thinking that I wasn’t expecting but desperately needed. Through playing the story, stepping alongside Max and feeling her choices, I was able to externalize struggles I previously only experienced internally. I could crystallize what I needed to carry on.

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On Playing

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During my hiatus from this blog I did something extraordinary: playing games  successivley without stopping to write about them. The little critic took a holiday from his home in my head, and I was able to enjoy my favorite hobby with a newfound enthusiasm. I slid across the reflective sci-fi skylines of Mirror’s Edge, explored the nordic tundra and rolling grass plains in Skyrim, and survived the horrific violence of a doomed Japanese island in Tomb Raider. I did all this with a sensation beyond the typical virtual-world escapism. I took a break from writing, and it felt good. In fact, I pushed it out of my mind entirely.

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Shootin’ and Lootin’: Zen and the Art of Borderlands 2 

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For nine months of job-hunting I had been rejected or ignored by a growing collection of marketing firms, publishing companies, software corporations, and even video game studios. It was a cyclical mire of research, application, and optimistic anticipation. My heart sunk upon the opening of professional emails containing the word “Unfortunately” or the phrase, “Thank you for your interest”; afterwards I would log my updated status into my increasingly forlorn Excel spreadsheet before moving on and pretending I didn’t have my hopes up. It was a humbling and arduous exercise, one that I’m not ashamed to admit took its toll on my self-confidence. It was easy to find myself in a hole of doubt laced with a tunneling idleness; at times I felt useless, static, unproductive. I felt like a parasitic force on my own bank account and on the generosity of my supportive parents. I looked back upon my internships and coursework with a sort of pessimistic and undeserved disdain, believing after all of my efforts I had earned the opportunity to prove my worth.

Much to my delight, during my extended radio silence on this blog I was able to land a part-time job at my neighborhood bakery and coffee shop. I would love to share more on that in a later post (I’ve begun stockpiling a few anecdotes I’ve experienced as cashier), but for now I’ve decided to focus on the new monster in my life who replaced unemployment; graduate school.

I remain steadfast in the direction I want to take with my education, I aspire to enter an MFA graduate program to improve my writing and broaden my worldview, and use this goal to keep my head on straight. Yet even this commitment brings the baggage of personal expectations. Is my writing good enough? Do I have the guts to teach at the college level? How will I handle a more concentrated rejection, one targeting what I’ve always believed to be one my greatest talents? I try to alleviate my anxiety with plentiful exercise, studying, spending time with old friends, reading, watching movies, discovering new music, and shooting rampaging aliens in the face.

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“Press ‘J’ to question nothing”: Navigating The Stanley Parable 

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You are now reading my thoughts on The Stanley Parable. You are scanning the eggshell computer screen for dark glyphs corresponding to sounds and meanings. Whose voice are you hearing? Yours? Or mine? Do you even know what I sound like? Is your narration of these words a surrogate for my own? Do these thoughts belong to you, or am I prompting and implanting them? Does this feel uncomfortable, flustering,  perhaps even a little creepy? You should stop reading now.

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“Recklessness is rewarded”: The Bloody Mania of Hotline Miami 

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Dennaton Games’ 2012 indie action title is a thrilling rush of twitch-reflexes and head-bobbing tunes. Heavily inspired by Nicolas Winding’s film Drive (2011) – the director is specifically thanked in the closing credits – Hotline Miami fuses the neon beauty of the American 1980’s aesthetic with a visceral Tarantino-level affinity for stylized violence. Earning numerous “Best of” awards including critical kudos for the game’s excellent soundtrack, Dennaton’s commercial debut has even garnered an upcoming sequel. Equal parts gritty crime drama and frantic shoot ’em up fantasy, Hotline Miami is a flustering frenzy that never relents.

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“Billions of lighthouses…stuck at the far end of the sky”: Unearthing To the Moon 

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A humble yet commercially successful indie adventure game, To the Moon is the brainchild of Canadian designer/writer/composer Kan Gao and his development team, Freebird Games. Originally released on the author’s website in 2011, picking up whispers of a cult following before launching into the mainstream market via Steam, To the Moon has received critical acclaim praising its creative storytelling, nostalgic visuals, and bravery tackling sensitive themes notably absent from other interactive efforts. No doubt To the Moon‘s greatest achievement is its ambitious and sentimental sci-fi tale that echoes Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with a fresh element of moving mystery. Despite pestering gameplay gripes, constant tone inconsistencies within the dialogue, and a slogging middle section that weighs down the narrative, To the Moon is nevertheless an emotional experience that demonstrates the power of game storytelling.

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The Stuff of Nightmares: Tumbling Through Limbo

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The deserving recipient of numerous accolades ranging from the 11th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards “Best Visual Art” honor to the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ “Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design”, Playdead’s 2010 puzzle-platformer is a unique expedition loaded with treacherous booby-traps, malevolent creatures, and morbid mystery.  Limbo‘s main strengths lie in its creative level design and commitment to a macabre mood that lingers beyond completion – making the game an enjoyable romp through a nightmare I wouldn’t mind revisiting.

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