Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Her Story (2015) Game Review - NO SPOILERS!

Her Story is, I think, the first FMV game I have ever played. FMV being an acronym for “full motion video”, a type of gaming style that uses pre-recorded video rather than 2D/3D graphics. I was interested to find out during the opening titles it was created and written by Sam Barlow, the writer for two Silent Hill games. So though this game was a departure from the horror series, it was exceedingly well done. It was completely different to anything I have ever played before and though I was initially dubious looking at the trailer for it, it turned out to be worth the risk. It can be finished in a relatively short amount of time (around 2 hours) or if you’re a perfectionist that needs 100% completion in order to be satisfied, it would probably take around 5-6 hours. So either way it’s not going to be a game to take over your life for weeks, and it definitely is not open to replays, but it is worth a try for its uniqueness.


You are tasked as a detective, searching through previously archived and forgotten-about video files regarding the investigation into the murder of a man. Not many details are given and you really have to find your own feet. But when you succeed it gives you a great feeling that your hand wasn’t held throughout. You have access to the police’s database of interrogations to do with the murder in the form of hundreds of small clips, and by using keywords to search for particular words used in the dialogue to find relevant clips to use as evidence. If this sounds confusing, it’s because I’m trying not to give too much away. What is really enjoyable about this game is the discovery aspect of it, where you must find out everything for yourself. You’re not given names or anything and have to work from practically nothing to find out the murderer, weapon, motive, location, victim; literally everything. All I can say is good luck and try to be patient. At times you hit a wall of not being able to think of a single good word to search for, but it is usually short-lived. There’s a few pretty big twists that are pretty shocking and astounding, but it makes you feel like a real investigator, scouring for clues and occasionally hitting the jackpot.

To refrain from spoilers I can’t talk much about characters, but I will say that the videos available to the player are nicely acted most of the time, but tragically inadequate at times. The script is amazingly written, astoundingly so, with tiny details added that make the game seem so real. Everything has been planned carefully and aside from a few blaringly stupid answers that no one in their right mind would ever say in a police investigation, there are no obvious plot holes. Her Story has obviously been a long time coming and the effort that has gone into it all really does pay off.


The concept of the game is strong because there’s nothing really like it out there. It has little to no competition so in its uniqueness it can’t be matched. It has you sucked in from a few minutes in and that’s it; you’re hooked. You get involved and actually at times I forgot I was even playing a game. Shit got real when a notebook got involved to write down key words. On Reddit I’ve seen people with full on investigation boards or huge, intricate spreadsheets, and it just goes to show how involving Her Story is. I think it’s probably quite a marmite game, judging by people’s quite strong reactions to it.

The music for the game kicks in at a random time and I’m not sure why. It’s creepy music though, and it works. The very sparse graphics that are included are weak, but when the lighting flickers and a face pops up onto the 90s style computer screen, it’s honestly terrifying. I liked the interface of the game, being a Meta computer within a computer, and fit the realism style of Her Story perfectly. It also gives you an anti-glare option which I didn’t use because the reflections added character to the screen and, like I said, a bit of eeriness.

For a while it’s hard to think of any cons to the game, it’s perfectly executed. That is, until you’ve pieced together most of what you think happened, and then you realise, “Wait. How am I supposed to finish this game?” There is a feature where you can pin particularly important clips, and I thought those clips would then be judged on their relevance to see if I’d made a good enough case. Nope. There is literally no point to them except for your own easier access to the clips. You don’t ever put a case together or even have your questions answered. There is no definitive conclusion to this game and for me that was really disappointing. It didn’t add to the mystery of it all, it just pissed me off. It felt gimmicky, like an answer was excluded purposefully to get people frustrated and talking about Her Story so it would get more players. And though I understand how to the developers that would be beneficial, it’s just lazy game making.


To conclude, Her Story is fun, deeply involving and refreshingly innovative and I hope it will inspire others to create investigatory games that are realistic and constantly surprising. Strong scripting and acting are diminished slightly by the disappointing ending, but still enjoyable. Definitely worth the money if you don’t mind high quality over low quantity.


Sunday, 24 January 2016

Life Is Strange (2015) Game Review


All of us have, at some point in our lives, done something really stupid, regretted it immediately, and wished we could go back to change whatever idiocy we just committed. Life is Strange takes that daydream to a whole new level. Like, shit gets REAL. Episode one, you kind of think, “This is nice.” By episode five you’re pulling your hair out, wishing for someone to tell YOU what to do because your mind has turned to mush from making really important decisions that 90% of the time turn out to be completely horrific choices for the good of your friends, self, town, college, etc. The consequences of your seemingly innocent actions, whether something small like taking a photo or having a conversation with someone, can affect the game in a plethora of different ways you can’t even begin to imagine while you’re playing. The great thing about this game is not only do you get the power of hindsight during the game, as in you can rewind time and change your mind most of the time, you also get to reflect on the decisions you’ve made at the end of each episode where you find out exact percentages of how your selections match up to all other players’. The comparison can be fun when it shows overwhelming percentages of people all choosing to do the same thing you did, or exciting when you’re in a tiny minority of people to do something different.


The characters of the game really bring it to life, especially the two main protagonists Max, our playable “time warrior” character, and Chloe, her bad-ass sidekick who arguably the story really revolves around. Their character arcs and how they weave in and out of the stories of other characters is well thought out to the point of being TV show or movie standard. As in, not like typical averagely written games with a mediocre plot featuring a few feeble, annoying, stereotyped characters. It's good also that the developers didn't bow down to the pressure of making Max male because it's refreshing to see a lead female protagonist who is strong but not annoying and who does have flaws. I think it brings more palpable emotion into the game, too. It really works. The voice actors are good but honestly Max’s voice is quite annoying. Not only does she look about fourteen, her voice sounds like a young emo teenager. Considering your actions range from bitchy to angelic, the way the character is handled as a complete, rounded person and not just an empty shell for the player to project themselves into is very impressive. The characters are believable too, in the way you wouldn’t be surprised to bump into them near your own hometown’s university. Well, minus the whole time travelling thing.


However, my biggest complaint about the whole series (well, second biggest, but we’ll get to that); the DIALOGUE. THE GODDAMN DIALOGUE. It’s so bad. Like, while you’re reading the subtitles you kind of want to grab a spoon and scoop your own eyeballs out to refrain from exposing yourself to the poorly written things the characters come out with. I mean, the amount of times the word "shit" is used in order to be edgy, or "hella" for some reason I can't even gather, is frankly embarrassing. Max is a reflection of you and sometimes you want to shove the words coming out of her mouth back in, they're so contrived. Hella shit. It's like a GCSE attempt at writing as someone a few years older than themselves in university. I assumed, because the developers are French, that there must be some old school Google translate type of shit going on for it to achieve such high levels of atrocity. Nope. From what I understand the developers wrote the script in French, and handed it to an English “writer” to perfect as an American/English script. But it’s not natural to speak how they do, and it’s really jarring as a player when the whole focus of the game is on characterisation. It’s passable because of how great the game is and the actors manage to salvage it slightly, so you’re kind of willing to laugh it off and continue with the story but really it’s inexcusable to allow stilted, cheesy dialogue that bad into a game of such a high calibre in nearly every other aspect. A good writer was all that was needed to completely sort that issue out. 


The episodic formula to the game, though it was originally decided upon for financial reasons, actually works really well for LiS. Making this into one big game would be restrictive and kind of like trying to shove a ten episode TV series into a three hour film. It would be rushed and unsatisfying. This way, the storyline has room to flow naturally and grow at a steady and easily digestible way. We get to emotionally connect with all the characters and Arcadia Bay as a whole at a pace that doesn’t feel forced. The concept of this game is really top notch. Though the rewinding time device can be a little frustrating when you change your mind and have to sit through the dialogue again (admittedly at a faster pace, but still) multiple times depending on the severity of the choice, it can definitely get a bit boring. I feel they executed the time reversal well though, and it is a unique and effective technique to give the game a fresh spin that others could do with emulating. It was nice to play something that didn’t rely on violence, to engage your brain and think outside of the box to complete challenges using your powers. The quests were very well done to be at a level that pushed your capabilities enough to be challenging and at times frustrating but stay fun and never become tedious. Well, until the episode that shall not be named... (for a few paragraphs at least).


Artistically, this game is beautiful. The hand drawn scenes make each setting picturesque and the graphics well exceeded my expectations for a relatively low budget game. It had its own idiosyncratic style without being too out there. It was warm and inviting and felt familiar from the moment you press play. It was enjoyable to look at as the game went on, and definitely quite a nice break from the bleak greyness that is Fallout 4. The soundtrack, as many will confirm, was completely on point at all times. The folksy, indie music really fitted the whole spirit of the game and took the game to a new level. I honestly think the music for LiS is what makes it so memorable and spectacular. The music lingers with you and every time the opening track plays it makes you want to replay the whole thing. If only we all had that many hours to spare.


And now it’s time to talk about episode five. I’m sorry. I’ll make it quick. It is by far the most polarising (see what I did there?) episode of them all and no one can ever agree on whether it was the best, most emotional ending to a story ever, or a totally restrictive cop-out. In my opinion, it seemed like all the options you’d lovingly made from episode one were obsolete and you were basically told, “Forget all that! We’re in the here and now. We won’t tie up all of our loose ends, but we will give you this...” and there you have it. Two huge options that actually are meaningless because you are pushed into one or the other. The game nosedived from being an expansive web of decision making, fretting, changing your mind, trying to predict the future... to a completely linear plot, topped off by a measly two options. What the hell, man. I was so disappointed. Lots of people enjoyed it and felt it was the perfect final stop on the feels train but I wasn’t one of them. I have read that this was down to the fact the developers had gone waaaay over budget for episode four (you can tell the difference in effort between four and five) and had to quickly rush five because of A. Lack of interest, and B. Lack of funding. Not a good combo for a videogame, and also kind of tragic that little did they know how much this game would blow up and justify their time and money. I’m still hoping they’ll remake five and re-release it but that’s kind of like wishing for a conclusive answer in Making a Murderer. Not gonna happen!

Overall this game deserves every scrap of hype it’s managed to acquire and it is certainly a game everyone should play just to try something new and exciting. Not much can be faulted but a few small things do let it down. (Episode five, we’re all looking at you.) If you’re undecided about the £15 it costs to download the series, don’t be. It’s completely worth your money. Do it. You can thank me later.


Here's the official trailer:

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Making a Murderer (2015) Review - Spoilers!

Making A Murderer Title.jpg

It seems strange to warn of spoilers for a documentary regarding a criminal case that had its final verdict given 9 years ago now, with every detail of its trial and investigation available online for all to research and pass judgement on. This point is also critical in the documentary - because the information is handed to the viewer in a relatively simple, easy-to-understand manner, every viewer feels they have seen enough to pass an informed decision on Avery’s whole case. The petition that has now garnered 300,000 signatures to free Avery is kind of ridiculous. Was he given a fair trial? No. Does this mean he should be given a “get out of jail free” card because people like him and dislike the state? No. What if he is guilty? The trial seemed to neither prove nor disprove his innocence (which in terms of the law should mean he was found innocent – because he was not guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But anyway...) It’s such a confusing case though, because for every person saying, “He must be guilty! Remember this piece of evidence?” another person can answer, “No way! That’s not incriminating, because remember this?” There is always a counter-answer for any question, whether it is pro-Avery or anti-Avery. It just depends on how deep the conspiracy can be seen to go on either side.  

Personally, I fail to understand why someone with a strong possibility of winning $39 million dollars in a lawsuit against the state police department (revenge), who had experienced the hardship of American jail for eighteen years (wrongfully so) and knew the consequences of a serious crime firsthand, who was engaged to be married, who had just been reunited with his children and grandchildren, would possibly commit a crime at that point in his life. But I’ve seen arguments saying prison unlocked something murderous within his psyche while spending 18 years there, or if it was sexually motivated the fact his partner had been in prison for seven months preceding the murder could explain that, or he felt invincible because he had already been wrongfully convicted and had the public and the government’s support, and that he was prone to violence and crime all his life and it was bound to happen at some point or another. So who can say?

All of this text so far and I haven’t even begun reviewing the program. It’s a hard one to pass judgement on because while you’re watching, you’re sucked in to the case. It is more of an experience than a television series. It’s personal and you can’t help but feel “what if that were me?” I’ve probably never watched a series so engrossing from the very first episode. Making a Murderer (MaM) has gripped the world with its emotional, distressing, frustrating, disheartening, insightful rollercoaster ride. It’s an event that no one can stop talking about. You almost forget it’s a program because of how well put-together and edited it is, you’re just totally encased by it. On more than one occasion, you will probably stand up and start shouting at your television/laptop because of how unfair it all is. You will probably go to bed every night while you’re watching it until (and after) you finish it, wondering about what will happen and how it will end. Because to their credit, the filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos don’t use any foreshadowing in the first episode or in any episode to let you guess the ending. The title of the show, I suppose, implies Avery is made a murderer; either by the state and their planting of evidence, or by the years he spent in prison that would undoubtedly change a person in whatever way, or by the unfair conviction, or by his circumstances in life by virtue of being an Avery with an extremely low IQ and an outsider. It’s gripping and that’s only exemplified by the fact it is real life. Ricciardi and Demos somehow twist and turn real life events into a narrative that sounds almost fictional. They play with your emotions, expertly set up your expectations mostly to dash them, and delve deeply into most aspects of Avery and the case that allow you to feel you have a wide perspective on everything to do with the case. Although we don’t. Very little is said about Theresa as a person before she died, all we know her job and we see two clips she filmed of herself which themselves create questions that are never really answered and probably never will be.

It is strange to read the responses to the program and see people saying the same things you thought while watching it that weren’t necessarily intended by the filmmakers. For example, while watching the show whether right or wrong I immediately found suspicious Theresa’s brother Michael. From the off he was instantly fatalistic when talking about Theresa, who at the time was only reported as missing the day before. He said something to the effect of the grieving process possibly lasting years, and wanting to find Theresa so they could move on, then hastily added that it would be hopefully with Theresa in their lives. Her voicemail password (which, by the way, he somehow knew. And “someone” deleted her voicemails from during the time when a persistent caller was hounding her shortly before she died. But because of the third party protection that was enforced during the trial no other suspects could be named, only alluded to.) was her sisters’ birthdays. In her self-recorded video she states how much she loves her sisters, her parents, her friends. No mention of her brothers. He seemed overjoyed when Avery and Dassey were found guilty, even though anyone in their right mind could see how Dassey obviously had a reduced mental age and should not have been trialled as an adult, if at all (Steven’s case threw his statements out because they were conflicting. Yet Brendan was charged because of them. Even though both cases were based on totally different theories; Theresa being killed in the garage (Steven’s trial) and in the bedroom (Brendan’s case) and while I’m aware they were two separate cases, they were regarding the same murder. Completely nonsensical.) I guess the murder of your sibling would change you, and being in the spotlight during such a difficult time is bound to make anyone act strangely. But I just found him very strange, along with the ex-boyfriend who he was nearly always with and who’s interactions regarding Theresa leading up to and after her disappearance and death seemed very suspicious to me.

So I named this a review, but I’m not sure I fulfilled that promise. For the time being I’m afraid I delved just about as deep as I’m willing to on my blog, where everything I type is made permanent and public. As easy as it would be to throw theories around slating the police, or tarnishing Avery’s already tarnished name, I want to see a fair retrial take place. The real murderer must be found with undeniable evidence and guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, unlike Avery. Everyone who has experienced this documentary needs closure. Theresa deserves proper justice. The police deserve to either be punished or apologised to. One thing I can say with certainty, though we’re only fourteen days into the year, is that this will undoubtedly be the most gripping, thought-provoking television series of the year. Ricciardi and Demos deserve the utmost credit for their hard work and dedication over the last ten years for bringing light to the injustice of the American law system. If you’re rich, you’re okay. Unless you’re not white. That’s what this series highlights more than the Avery case specifically; how many changes need to be made in America to eradicate injustice and social bias.

Even three days after finishing MaM, I’m still haunted by the thought of Brendan Dassey (I won’t go into more detail. If you’ve seen it, you know how utterly devastating everything to do with Dassey is, and how wrongful his conviction was, and how unfairly he was treated as a sixteen year old boy), and frustrated by the lack of a definitive conclusion to the series. But, that’s because the cases of Avery and Dassey aren’t even nearly finished with yet. Three days ago Avery submitted a request for bail and for a retrial based on new evidence. Some are saying it’s because the jury were pressured into a guilty verdict by more pushy members, some are saying its new evidence to do with Theresa’s phone records and voicemails, others are saying it’s to do with the blood in the car and whether it had preservatives in it or not. No one will really know until court reaches a verdict. As one of the many thousands of people now emotionally invested into this mysterious case, I know what I hope the answer will be. I can only assume in reality it will be “no”... but there’s still hope yet. A follow-up documentary in a few years, anyone?


 For now, I will leave you with my favourite meme as a consequence of this series: