One Year After The Witness: A Short Review

It has been nearly a year since I played The Witness and wanted to give it a second, although short, reconsideration. When I really liked (or hate) a game, it is easy for me to feel confident about my experience with a game. However, The Witness left me feeling rather ambivalent and so it had been harder for be to make a final judgement about it quality.

Here are my final thoughts.

The puzzles are cleverly designed, vary in difficulty, and offer some choice in which puzzles you have to solve to finish the game. However, there are a lot of the, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of them (one is reminded of The Talos Principle). As I stated in my previous review, I think it would have been smart to reduce the total number of puzzles in one play-through by separating them into difficulty levels.

The audio and video logs add little of value to the game. Most are interesting in and of themselves but quoting smarter, more interesting people is a poor substitute for original insight. The game would have been better without these, particularly the longer video logs, and would have been far more consistent with Jonathan Blow original intention to make the game about the puzzles.

The environments are beautifully rendered but environmental puzzles would have made them even more engaging.

Overall, I can’t say that I am unhappy with my experience with The Witness but I would have been far more satisfied if there had been fewer puzzles, difficulty settings, and no quotations. The Witness had the potential to be a great puzzle game but feels critically unbalanced and unpolished. It is very hard for me to imagine going back to play it again as I have with other, better puzzle games.

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Pacific_Rim_FilmPosterIt has been more than a year (more than two, really, but who’s counting?) since Pacific Rim was released in theaters and I have waited patiently to see it at home. That might seem like a long time to wait to see a single movie but it was easy enough because I wasn’t particularly keen on seeing it in the first place. As fond as I am of Guillermo Del Toro’s films, the subject and genre of this film have never appealed to me personally. Despite my reservations, I found myself enjoying it immensely. Granted, it is not a personal favorite of mine but this is entirely due to personal taste and not to the quality of the film.

Some of Del Toro’s fans tend to dismiss his more popular and action-oriented films as being shallow, superficial, and generally lacking any emotionally depth. However, I find this to be utterly untrue. What differentiates films like Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, or the Hellboy films from The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth is not the quality of the content but rather the approach to conveying meaning.

Pacific Rim conveys a strong message about cooperation and human survival. At varies moments in the story, personal antagonisms arise but are ultimately put aside, and sublimated, for a common cause. It might seem a little trite in our post-90’s culture to talk of things such as morals but I would have serious doubts regarding anyone who is insensible to this relevance of this message.

One aspect of the film that deserves praise is the diverse cast and unique character development. Hollywood films are frequently whitewashed and female characters tend to fall in love with the white male hero. Fortunately, none of this happens in Pacific Rim. Stacker Pentecost and Mako Mori, played by Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi respectively, are both wonderfully written characters and play an instrumental role in the plot. Neither are reduced to cultural stereotypes and are given complex, compelling depth to their characters.

The acting, in regards to all his primary characters, deserves special praise. A lot can be said with nonverbal communication (“body language” for those not studying psychology) and  was pleasantly surprised to see how effectively the actors use this to convey to the view their character’s underlying feelings, thoughts, and states of mind. It is a unique quality to find in an actor’s performance and one quite often overlooked in film, as well as in life.

Some viewers may find it an inferior product compared to its much lauded predecessors but to me Pacific Rim demonstrates Del Toro’s ability to make a popular action film meaningful and compelling as a drama, far surpassing many contemporary or past attempts in the genre.

P.S. : As a fan of the Portal games, I was more than pleased to hear Ellen McLain as the voice of the Jaeger A.I..


Book Review: Mistress of Udolpho

93138Once while I was taking the bus home from my courses, an intoxicated man awkwardly approached me as I was reading Mistress of Udolpho and said he had enjoyed reading it as well. I was very surprised by this because the book I was reading was a biography of the 18th century gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, whose works and life are fairly esoteric topics in this day and age. Considering his intoxication, I very much doubt he had actually read it. Nevertheless, he was correct about one thing: the book is quite enjoyable.

Little is known about the “great enchantress” of the gothic but Rictor Norton has done an exemplary job at collecting what we do know about her and fills in the vague areas with a historical context she would have been a part of.

Radcliffe’s novels are notable for not containing the same vehement disdain for Catholicism that characterised many other gothic novels of the time. Instead, organised religion takes on a more ambivalent role, with convents and monasteries frequently acting as both sanctuaries and prisons. For Radcliffe, evil is a function of unrestrained passion and reason serves as the primary means of moderating passion.

While little is known about her own personal religious views, we do know that her family were known Unitarians and it is likely that she was raised as one. In the 18th century, Unitarianism was tied to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the influence can be readily seen in many of Radcliffe’s novels. Reason, equality, women’s rights, and education are prominent themes and are clearly advocated through her protagonists.

One only gets small glimpses into her personal life but it appears that she had a happy marriage and, although she never had children of her own, she saved and took care of several spaniels throughout her lifetime. (As a spaniel owner, I found this detail particularly satisfying.) She was shy and somewhat socially awkward, was sensitive to criticism of her work and shunned public attention. In this way, Radcliffe stood out but considering the popular reactions to gothic novels, it’s becomes quite easy to sympathise for her desire for seclusion. At the time, gothic novels were subjected to very harsh criticism and were scapegoated in much the same way as video games and rock n’ rock music. Criticism became especially harsh after the reign of terror. One critic even went so far as to accuse her of trying to induce terror in much the same way as Robespierre and the Committee for Public Safety had in France. Later only, 10th century critics were utterly dismiss he works as immoral, likely because of the socially and politically progressive attitudes she expressed in her works.

Norton makes a few claims I found to be rather problematic. Firstly, he argues that Radcliffe might have been bisexual because, in The Romance of the Forest, the narrator describes Adelines bosom in very alluring terms. While I cannot deny this as a possibility, I can’t help suspecting this is wishful thinking on the part of Norton because he frequently writes on the history of homsexuality. Secondly, he argues that Radcliffe did not write Gaston De Blondeville and on the basis that the style of diction varies from her other works. However, I do not find the diction to be very different at all.

For those interested in Radcliffe’s works, gothic literature, and the history of feminism, I would highly recommend this book. It is easy to follow, concisely written, and informative. It contains many more details than you are likely to find elsewhere online but sadly, due the sparse existing information we have about her, is still rather thin. Nevertheless, it has earned a special place in my library.

Video Game Review: Antichamber

Adventures games have been a part of my life since my childhood, when I would play Monkey Island, Zork, or The 7th Guest with my aunt, and has since grown to include many other titles of the same genre. Unfortunately, the genre declined in popularity in the late 1990’s, largely because not all titles met the standards gamers expected for the prices they paid and there are many games that do fall short of the mark, and nearly became nonexistence after 2000, with the exception for an increasingly repetitious Nancy Drew series and a few other games. With the success of the Portal series, the emergence of critical acclaimed independent companies like Frictional Games, and the promising development of a new Tex Murphy game and The Witness, I’m feeling very optimistic about the future of the adventure game.

Alexander Bruce’s Antichamber is another such game that gives me hope.

Unlike the many games I have enjoyed over the years, Antichamber does not really have much of a story, It relies more the players experience of the highly stylized environment and the thought-provoking picture-messages decorating walls here and there. Some of them also serve as hints to help the player but does not give away answers, as many game “hint systems” do or, in some cases, fail to do. Instead, the compels the player to think differently about the environment and so acts more as am aspect of the game-play and not like a “hint system.”

The labyrinth in which the game-world exists is large, confusing, and follows a not too obvious logic that the player much interpret in order to navigate competently through to the end. As difficult as this might seem, this structure works very well for the game, as the player begins within a smaller area with over portions closed off by puzzles. As the players understanding of the environment and skills increase, the labyrinth expands but never feels to encumbering. To aid the player, the game allows one to easy navigate to almost any place within it that has been previously unlocked. This, along with the menu screen and your collected picture-messages, appear along the walls of the entrance/menu page.

To solve the puzzles the player must experiment with the environment and the block-spewing gun in order to understand how they function and can be used. At times manipulating the blocks can be frustrating. When attempting to create a floor with the red gun the blocks would spread vertically instead of horizontally, and I was unable to determine of what of guiding them in a desired direction. Creating continue lines of blocks can also be difficult, as aiming is not so precise from a distance and the blocks are projected as far as they can go until prevenet by another object. Despite this, building with the blocks can be fun as well, and once during a playful impulse I lined all the walls around me with blocks. Whenever the player creates an enclosed shape the inside fills with more blocks (this technique is used to “grow” blocks) and this same rules applies to three-dimensional shapes. Without thinking about the actual consequences, I effectively entombed myself with a solid block and crashed the game.

The only other aspect of the game I found problematic was the mouse point. Although it remains in the center of the screen, it can be hard to discern from the “evaporation” areas, which are themselves permeated with agitated dots. Nevertheless, it wasn’t so detrimental as to make block manipulation impossible.

Antichamber ends with a curious, rather creepy chase sequence, during which the player has to follow after a mysterious black entity that floats around the maze. In the end this entity becomes necessary for the final puzzle. The ending is simple and rather ambiguous but a satisfyingly mysterious end to a thoroughly mysterious game.

Despite some of the cumbersome mechanics, I found this game greatly enjoyable. It appeals to my desire to explore, experiment, and solve problems; and it does this all in a neat, uncomplicated way. Playing Antichamber captured my interest in a way that few games do and it is a game well worth being interested in.