Today I’d like to delve into the psychological pressure and emotional distress that the global pandemic has triggered in many of us, me included, and one of the ways I’ve been coping.
Usually, high density action packed games are my go to and Death Metal tends to play on the internet radio more often than not.
Lately this has shifted to a lot more Synthwave and Lo-Fi a la the Astral Throb and Feardog channels on the Tubes and apart from shorter bursts of Scourgebringer, an attempt to find contemplative moments of naturalistic calmness and enjoyable virtual environments have become increasingly important during my gaming sessions over the last few weeks.
While living in Barcelona from 2013 until 2018 and doing a great job at not learning either Catalan nor Spanish, a purchase for research purposes had to be made and a Playstation 2 brought into my tiny flat-share, so that classics from the platform could be analyzed and dissected for wholesome information and cultural validity of said claims of greatness.
One of the most, if not the most impressive silver case contained data disc was Shadow of the Colossus, a hallmark of this hardware generation, that hasn’t lost any of it’s impact and, recently due for a visual remake, has been brought onto the latest Playstation in an attempt to conserve and introduce to new players this highly valuable piece of entertainment culture.
Standing out amongst a large amount of its brethren, SotC qualifies for one of the all time greatest video games by providing a deeply contemplative, empty and saddening experience, that will not leave a player who’s experienced its full breath of serene landscapes, lack of much of anything but wind in the mane of one’s horse while riding over grasslands void of natural life apart from sporadic vegetation and a singular bird joining in, if only for a little while, to soar away in the sky and return the player to solitude. SotC’s main theme is the struggle of its protagonist to find a way to revive his beloved, left in an unnatural stasis at a central temple structure in this ancient landscape, and to fulfill this ultimate purpose, the death of sixteen colossi must be caused by his hand.
Even as the fight sequences in the game are innovative on many levels and quite layered, both in behavioral and visual diversity from one colossus to the next, the proverbial meat of the game consists of long lonely rides across forgotten planes, destitute ruins of long forgotten civilizations and the growing sense of loneliness.
Between each combat encounter, the following ritual which shall not be described in particular detail and the search for the next colossus no conversations with friendly NPC’s, no shops to buy stuff, no randomly picked up lore snippets to read through and no sidequests are on the players menu and while there is pre-constructed story comprised of in-game cutscenes, very little about the player characters motives apart from his core desire is added. There’s no background info to the setting, leaving all the explanation to be construed by the player on their journey, giving the opportunity to fill many imagined gaps with many possible conflicts, intrigues, dark sciences or backstabbings that may have lead this world within a world to ruin.
Yet on the surface level the experience is almost meditative and removing much of the traditional video gamy beeps and bops provides added significance to mundane objects, turning the first tree the player sees after a prolonged ride over the steppes into a fantastically awe inspiring event.
And that’s how SotC stays through the entire game. Never adding unnecessary showpieces, making the superficially plain and lacking special in between fantastical encounters, combining the story tone with the perception of player input that simultaneously leaves few options except to take in the scenery, enjoy the seldomly thrown in music bits all the more, but not missing them for the sounds of nature and the whistling of the wind over the plane and between the hills, wanting to wave at the rare animal crossing ones path, not to stir it and then shoot it with the bow, but to greet another living thing in this desolate place.
Even on an old tv and with Playstation 2 era comparatively blurry visuals the experience is sublime. Ultimately saddening, but through the melancholy also very beautiful. Distinguished as a masterpiece and recognized for its ability to convey very much by presenting less.
Google announced its Stadia service in the spring of 2019 and rolled out a hampered down version that left a lot to desire compared to made promises in the fall of the same year. In his 38th year this gamer had been trying to put forth a more professional demeanor for the purpose of being recognized as a worthy contestant for a better paid higher regarded position within the corporate world of business and as a byproduct, one of Apple’s finest products, a 13’ MacBook was purchased. While traditional platforms like Steam do run on Mac’s, the systems are generally not considered as being optimized for gaming and, while letting aspiring professionals type away on their pleasant and only rarely stuck keyboard buttons and adjusting the brightness of the device by shoving ones finger over the added OLED touchbar, the options for video game consumption have traditionally been limited.
Alas, or maybe eureka, Google’s Chrome browser that can easily be installed on any Mac now opens up the world of triple A games and some random stuff to the hard working almost 40 year old professional, leading to a high procrastination potential whenever this well built productivity tool is activated.
There’s even Xbox One controller support, by Bluetooth, no less. So after accepting Google corporations gracious offer of using the service as a PRO member for free for the duration of two months and after initial technical issues that led to the inability to launch games even with a fast internet connection, a couple hours went playing one of the free games on offer, Zombie Army 4.
Derived from the Sniper Elite series, Zombie Army puts the player up against Nazi zombies, anatomically correct slow motion cams of deadly bullets flying through rotting flesh included. Overall, it’s a fun, arcady experience, that limits the sniper aspects and puts more emphasis on the fact that imminent death by getting swarmed is the norm, adding mounted machine gun positions throughout the game, for higher efficiency whenever moving down hordes of already dead German soldiers.
Due to the global situation at the time, constant adrenaline and thumping action wasn’t at the top of the list of video game experiences and this gamer heard mixed things about the newest title from the Ghost Recon series, so of course a purchase was made, while the game was on sale, to safe money.
Ghost Recon Breakpoint or GRBP, as it shall be called henceforth, is a tactical action game set on the fictional tropical island, or group of islands, called Aurora, that is the base for a futuristic tech company named Skell, operating under the motto of creating a better future for everybody, free hugs included.
The island has, however, been taken over by militaristic forces and most of the civilians now fulfill their research or drone assembling duties with assault rifles pointed at them, with many of the personal spaces the player encounters vandalized and deserted.
After being shot down in a cool looking helicopter the player has the honor bound duty to try and rid this potential paradise from its oppressors and free the good people of Aurora, so they can get back to hugging trees or whatever.
Like many Ubisoft titles belonging to one of their bigger franchises, GRBP is technically impressive in that it lets the player travel across it’s over 20 kilometers long game world without any loading screens, either by foot, land or air vehicle, while also providing fast travel options presented as spots with hot coals in them, the player can extinguish to then put up a meager shelter and sit making grenades in the rain.
This game also has many many bugs, as is trademark and tradition.
Unbeknownst to many but a few operators, the recently released immersive mode lets players experience the virtual environment that is the island in a toned down, more “realistic” version, by minimizing the heads up display components, adding physiologically probable limitations to sprinting spurts and removing the previously mandatory gear level, amongst other tweaks.
So, besides the optional sports car popping in just beside one’s out trodden fireplace in the middle of a forest, if the option to spawn vehicles at the bivouac is enabled, it’s the real deal.
GRBP is not as empty as SotC and offers greater environmental diversity and biospheres with the island, both palm trees and snow covered mountain tops and is scattered with randomly inserted patrols and pairs of soldiers with motorbikes camping out in the woods, as well as civilian rebels and collaborators that try to sabotage or salvage military equipment. Sidequests and faction related missions apart from the main story are also available a plenty, so technically many ways to complete interactive story sequences let players follow along a pre-made adventure, albeit in likely random order.
Another non descriptive way to approach the open world is to travel by foot, locating points of interest by consulting the game map and tackling whatever situations the game throws at the player spontaneously. Which is how this player went about it most of the 100 plus hours spent jogging across Aurora.
Due to the somewhat simulatory nature of the game in immersive mode this approach allows for a solitudinal experience speckled with bursts of calculated action per player choice, since most confrontations can be avoided, if not randomly stumbling across a wolf patrol on a hillside, that is.
This results in many hours stomping or crouching through the mud and snow, gazing at sunsets, surprising deer or wild boar by bursting forth through the tall grass, picking up flowers - for medicinal purposes, enjoying virtual bird cheeps, staring at simulated photovoltaic fields in awe and wondering what the giant vertical cannon like structures all over the island are made for, among pleasant swims across lakes, barely surviving stumbling down mountainsides, taking out sniper towers, glorious sunrises and finding ancient structures with money chests.
As a personalized and tailored experience GRBP in this way allows for a primarily relaxing and naturalistic atmosphere, that’s only broken up whenever the player chooses to engage with any given potentially combative situation, or whenever one has to roll in the mud, to turn invisible to predator drones.
So while several hours of playtime have likely been “wasted” as a result of designated NPC’s one is supposed to initialize a conversation with, will not let that conversation happen and the main story cannot advance as a result of a centrally important item not spawning 92% of the way done, the overall virtual stay on this place has been thoroughly pleasant.
As a quick sidenote to previously observed world design choices, mentioned in a blog post written many years ago, there’s some duplication of assets that will become more obvious, the more time has been spent running around Aurora, such as certain identical buildings with identical interior decoration layouts and other “cloned” things like pieces of wooden fences, but generally speaking the game does a very fine job at conveying a “real” world, within the constraints of a graphically rendered software viewed on a 2 dimensional square shaped screen, as opposed to photorealistic VR, of course.
In 2012 this player finished QWOP, a simple game to be played within a browser, by the laureated and likely extremely sadistic Bennett Foddy of Getting Over It fame and the prospect of playing a HD version of that with a 12 hour motion captured CG movie filled with sort of famous people seemed highly interesting.
Alas, mainly as a result of financial shortcomings - at the time of writing investments with a loss in Neurocrine Biosciences stock have been made, the purchase of a Playstation 4 console and the seminal Kojima title Death Stranding have been out of reach, therefore forging a personalized way of play by utilizing the means available became the only near term option to spend time in a somewhat empty but beautiful environment.
To relax and calm down from the outlandish horrors knocking at the door, the potential germs seeping in through the vents, to just sit and breathe and be. With a slightly sweaty controller in hand.
In tumultuous uncertain times like these, this is one of the few possible respites we can cling to, one of the completely controllable and pleasant experiences available in a world that has gone haywire, an environment that provides greater risk of proving deadly than just a few months ago, not to forget already existing health risks and possibly dumb ways to die.
But while the world is slow to adapt sustainable energy alternatives and only stops buzzing around in fossil fuel powered vehicles when told to on account of a high risk of the trip being fatal, GRBP has hydroponic and aeroponic farms on Aurora, one just has to get rid of the Sentinel soldiers and wolves and their drones to help the folks there get back to making clean food sourced with sustainable solar energy. They possibly won’t talk to you, but they’re doing a good deed.