Mental Health in Video Games: Persona 5 – REVISITED

This article contains spoilers relating to Persona 5’s Fourth Dungeon and the gameplay that immediately follows.

My last post on mental health in video games looked at how Persona 5 addressed mental health in the form of the isolated, agorophobic character Futaba. This article highly praised the game for its approach, however as the game progressed I realised that this good work is quickly undone by the subsequent approach to helping Futaba aclimatise to life outside her bedroom.

When she first spends time outside of her room it is apparent to everyone in the Phantom Thieves that Futaba struggles to engage with people in conversation, particularly around topics she is not interested in. The way the Thieves address this is to talk about Futaba as is she is not present and to discuss how to socialise her, without her input. Futaba is treated like a broken object that needs fixing rather than a severely emotionally traumatised person who is working out how to live a more normal life.

After the beautiful way that Atlus explore Futaba’s mental state in her entombed pyramid palace, with the Phantom Thieves having to allow Futabato open up the palace herself, it feels jarring to have this undercut by the first things the Phantom Theives do once Futaba joins the team.

One bit that caught me particularly off-guard and emphasised how inappropriate this was, was a scene where Futaba is encouraged to work at the coffee shop both Joker, the lead character, and her guardian Sojiro, work at. Sojiro, aware that she is a social shut in, asks her why she is now coming out and putting herself in these situations she finds uncomfortable. Being given a dialogue choice at this point I said that it was her idea, believing that she had, despite the poor way the party spoke about her in her presence, agreed to this process. Futaba then calls me a liar. She is not happy to be here and is only here because of peer pressure exerted by her new friends. That felt super uncomfortable.

This discomfort is increased as the gang are determined to turn this hikikomori from a social shut-in into a bikini wearing beach-goer within a week. They set out an invasive, demanding and non-consensual timetable which ends up being successful despite this being very far from the real result you would be likely to get from imposing so much pressure on someone who suffers from severe social anxiety.

As many of you will be aware, social anxiety takes time to overcome. For individuals that suffer from social anxiety having friends who are willing to help them push their comfort levels is a good thing, but there is a huge amount of responsiblity on those friends to respect their friend’s boundaries, and ensure that they do not end up in over their heads. Some people when they are overwhelmed are unable to express themselves and so will appear to be quietly compliant, as harmful experiences and emotions build up, increasing that persons ongoing aversion to social situations. Learning to overcome anxiety takes time and there are set backs in real life that make the process take longer.

For a game that gets so many other things right, particularly when addressing the issues of mental health, it feels particularly jarring that this situation, which is a central plot point, is dealt with so indelicately.

I really love Persona 5 and it is easily one of my favourite all time games, which is why I hold it to such a high standard when I look at it’s story and content critically. I can only hope that future Persona installments can avoid having these uncomfortable moments, leaving us with nothing but 24 carat JRPG gold.

Impressions: Bloodborne

A Hunter must hunt…

Bloodborne is a game I tried to play several years ago, but it didn’t fully click with me, other games came up that I wanted to play and it ended up falling by the wayside.

Not the best first impression clearly, but that is not the end of the story for this beautifully gothic game…

After not playing Bloodborne for a long time I played Sekrio: Shadows Die Twice and I loved it. The game taught me to play aggressively, focusing on parrying and riposting; a stark contrast to the defensive, conservative combat encouraged by the Dark Souls games. It turns out that this game retroactively trained me into the correct mindset for playing Bloodborne.

But there would still be one more insight I would have to gain before I was drawn back to Bloodborne; the discovery of the cosmic horror that was lurking beneath the surface.

Over the past four years I have become very interested in horror, watching many a video-essay on horror in both film and video game media, and I realised there was much more to Bloodborne than the visceral bloody gothic horror that Bloodborne appears to be. Great Ones, the cosmos, nightmare realms, all lurk behind the opening stages of Bloodborne, and are the very essence of Lovecraftian cosmic horror.

Like many other From Software games, Bloodborne is filled with lore that is found in item descriptions and locations, with a wide space left open for personal interpretation and analysis. It was by watching lore analysis videos, by youtubers such as VaatiVidya, Lance McDonald and TheLastProtagonist, that I discovered a deep passion for the story that Bloodborne has to tell. A story of humans striving to attain a greater level of understanding about the universe and their place within it, but discovering an eldritch truth that drives them to madness. A story where mankind’s battle against their own inner beastial nature take on a far more literal and visceral dimension.

The story is intriguing, and is considered by some to be the best realisation of Lovecraftian horror that has been achieved in video games.

The gameplay is similar to other FromSoftware games, with a focus on evasion and parrying enemy attacks. When you take damage you have a small window of opportunity to recover your health by attacking the enemy, which encourages an aggressive playstyle, and you will quickly learn in game that backpedaling is not the way to succeed in this game, its all about sidestepping or dashing through enemy attacks to try to flank them, and punishing every opening that the enemy presents you with.

It is fun, fast paced and exciting.

The aggressive gameplay is complimented by beautiful sound design and an a wonderfully detailed gothic artstyle. It feels like you are truly stalking beasts through the small streets of a gothic era european city, and it lends itself wonderfully to the thematic horror stylings the game has. Frantic fights give way to atmospheric tension, which builds as you expect an ambush around each corner, knowing that it takes just one hit to wipe out your health, but if you retaliate quick enough you can regain your health and get the upper hand.

The game is difficult. and this will undoubtedly cause issues for some players, which make the game somewhat impenetrable. The same can be said of the indirect storytelling; if you like a clearly defined story, then I would recommend starting by checking out the lore videos that various youtubers have made on Bloodborne as a prelude to playing, as it will give some structure to the game that would otherwise be somewhat obsure.

Bloodborne is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a brillant game if you are looking for a game which is difficult, and has an obscure story that takes some searching and interpretation to tease out. It is very much my kind of game, and I hope that you can enjoy it as well!

Impressions: Remnant from the Ashes

Remnant from the Ashes is a game I discovered completely by accident when watching YouTube. I had heard nothing about this game before watching this random video, but I was intrigued by what I saw.

A post-apocalyptic third-person shooter, which involved online co-op and dodging attacks thrown at the players by Dark Souls-esque enemies.

I had to give it a go.

Fresh off playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, I was feeling hesitant to try a game I had heard so little about. I needed some tried and tested quality in the games I was playing, but I took a chance on picking up Remnant from the Ashes in the PlayStation Summer Sale.

This was a satisfying purchase.

You play a human fighting across a post-apocalyptic Earth, taken over by the plant-based horde of the Root, bringing guns to what would typically be a sword and shield affair in any other entry to the Souls-like Action RPG genre.

The world you explore is pseudo-randomised, with different dungeon layouts being generated each play-through, and randomised bosses and events filling these worlds, leaving the player with a unique feeling campaign, add giving players to ability explore uniquely rolled layouts that other players have discovered in co-op play. It is a neat feature, and also leads to a replayable game experience.

But all of these features are mere gimmicks without a solid core gameplay to build these features into.

Thankfully Remnant from the Ashes delivers on this gameplay, with some crazy gun-shooting, quick-rolling, fast-moving gunplay which keeps you on your toes in a fun and high pressure way.

The game feels fluid and weighty, the random generation is nice, although the random boss generation can lead to some difficult fights. My first boss was an enemy that spawned explosions on you every 3 seconds. It was overwhelming and I had to go online to find out how to beat him because I was struggling significantly with the encounter.

Once I saw that you had to just keep running the battle thankfully opened up and I beat him on my second attempt after watching the video.

You dodge-roll out of the way of enemy projectiles, you can melee enemies that get too close, you have to control your space, and you face more horde-type enemies than you get in Dark-souls, but it feels perfectly balanced for the gun-play focus of the game.

The game world is well realised, if not a little bland. I am currently exploring a ruined city and it is…a ruined city. Not particularly exciting, but I am aware that you explore different locales as the game progresses I am not able to comment on how well these other locations are realised at this time.

In cut scenes the game looks pretty ugly; character models have clearly been designed for being looked at from a distance, and they look plastic and awkward up close.

Thankfully in general gameplay everything looks fine. It is not pushing any bounds in graphic fidelity or beauty, but that hardly matters when the core gameplay is so solid and fun to play.

This game feels like the anti-thesis to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order; not the prettiest game, but it has a solid, tightly tuned combat system creates a fun, fluid experience that is a fun twist on the action RPG genre.

I am excited to play more of this game which at this stage I would categorise as a diamond in the rough.

Impressions: Dead by Daylight

Death is not an Escape

Published in 2016, Dead by Daylight is a game I never really thought I would be playing, never mind 4 years after it’s intial release, but here we are!

Yes that is the demogorgon!

Dead by Daylight is an asymetric multiplayer horror game, which pits four survivors against a singular killer, in a race to escape the map before the killer can sacrifice all the survivors to the mysterious Entity.

When I first saw footage of Dead by Daylight, I was not entirely impressed with it, it looked slow and unpolished, and was an easy game to not play. But several years later I discovered it all over again, and I am glad that I rediscovered this gem.

The game is set in a paralel dimension that belongs to a malicious force known only as the Entity. It survives by feeding off exreme emotions, which are evoked by the Trials, where survivors are trapped in an enclosed arena and must activate five generators to power an exit gate and escape before the Killer catches them and sacrifices them by hanging them on meat hooks found throughout the map.

As of writing there are 23 survivors and 21 killers that can be played as, with each survivor and killer having unique traits and abilities that make them unique. As you progress in the game you can teach traits to other characters, allowing you to fully customise both survivors and killers to suit your preferred playstyle. Each killer has a unique playstyle that cannot be transferred to other killers,

The survivors play in third person, and sneak around the map, avoiding the killer and repairing generators which power the exit gates through which the survivors must attempt to escape. The killer plays in first person, hunting survivors by following trails left by them, listening to the survivors breath and following bloodpools that are left when you manage to hit a survivor with your weapon.

Killers have to hit survivors to knock them down, then they pick the survivor up and place them on a meathook, which sacrifices them to the Entity. Survivors have no way to directly attack the killer, but instead can try to trip the killer up to save their fellow survivors, or distract the killer long enough for another survivor to rescure their teammate off the hook before the sacrifice is complate.

The game is tense, regardless of which team you choose to play for. Things are expectedly nervewrecking as a survivor, but the tension does not drop as a killer. Trying to keep track of all four survivors, particularly if they are communicating properly with each other, is difficult, and mind-games become a key part of succeeding as a killer.

Developers, Behaviour Interactive, have managed to keep the game fresh by frequent balance fixes and the release of new content, in the form of killers, survivors and maps, with the most recent updating bringing a new killer, The Blight, this year. The game compliments its own unique killers by licencing some of horror’s best known killers including Freddie Kruger, Michael Myers and Leatherface. There is something special about being stalked by Michael Myers, or desperately trying to wake up as you hear the ominous Freddie Kruger lullaby surround you, and it is thrilling to experience.

This game is not perfect, and glitches can be fairly common, despite the frequent bug fixes Behaviour Interactive release. There are also noticable issues with matchmaking speeds, with the game sometimes taking up to 10-15 mintues to place you in a match. These times have been lowered by the recent introduction of cross-play, which allows you to play with friends and other players regardless of what platform the game is played on, but it can still be annoying if you just want to play a quick round.

Dead by Daylight is a great horror themed multiplayer game, and I have found it to be a great game to unwind to. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, given the horror styling and issues with bugs, but if you are not put off by these things, Dead by Daylight is a game worth playing, and one I have found very enjoyable, despite my initial misgivings.

Impressions: Code Vein

There have been a lot games that have tried to walk in the footsteps of From Software’s Dark Souls, with varying degrees of success.

Those that succeed do so by putting their own unique twist on the dark, nihilistic formula, and Bandai Namco Studios bring a massive dose of anime goodness to the genre in a Dark Souls-meets-Tokyo Ghoul action RPG.

Set in the ruins of a fallen civilisation you awaken with no memory of who you are, alongside a mysterious girl who leads you forward into a broken world filled with monsters that used to be human, but are now husks of their former selves.

Sound familiar?

The story is not nothing particularly special, and is filled with very tropy anime characters and story beats (did I mention the girl that finds you when you awaken has disproportionatly large breasts, barely covered by an incredibly ripped up mini-dress?) but there is a real gem of a game hiding behind the tropey awkwardness.

Press Any Button to Start

The first thing you will notice with this game is the in-depth character creation. You get to craft your very own waifu/guyfu, and it is one of the more detailed character creators you will experience in any game. I could spend hours making lots of different characters that are completely unique and is a fun experience in and of itself.

Once you get through the character creation you jump into the game and get to see the beautiful world the Bandai Namco Studios have created; a ruined modern city, where gangs of bio-weapons (read vampires) search for rare fruits called a bloodbeads, which provide sustainence in the absence of a human to feed off.

You will make allies as you progress through this world and explore several environments that will not feel unfamiliar to Dark Souls players.

So what does this game do differently?

What you will discover when you enter the first ‘dungeon’ of the game is the existence of an AI controlled ally that will come with you througout your wanderings. This ally will be able to fight alongside you in combat and heal you if you go down.

This ally mechanic is a welcome variation to the traditional lone explorer, and you will find different allies have difference strengths that will be better suited to some enemies than others. For example I have one ally I use for general exploring who can quickly dispatch surprise enemies and a different ally who can tank in boss fights for me to be a more hit and run attacker.

With the addition of an extra ally, it means that you will be frequently facing larger groups of enemies, that will try to swarm and surround you. Maneuvering becomes a key part of staying alive, and the traditional stamina management mechanics you have in Dark Souls are a key part of combat here.

In addition to the AI ally, Code Vein also provides an incredibly flexible skill/class system. There are 39 base blood codes, which are the classes available. Each blood code has a number of abilites associated with it. As you progress in the game you will unlock more abilities for each bloodcode, and if you master a code, you can transfer particular abilities from one code to another. One code for example will specialise in quick hits with a one-handed sword, whilst another specialises in resisting status effects, and another specialises in draining your opponants lifeforce. By synegising these abilities you can really craft a class that feels unique to you, as well being able to be changed on the fly, as your situation requires.

In keeping with the anime styling of the game, combat is fast paced and fluid. You really feel like an anime protagonist fighting against the odds, dodging, diving, and following up with an awesome feeling attack from an oversized weapon. You can handle more enemies in Code Vein than you would be able to in Dark Souls, and have access to more crowd control abilities, but you still need to dodge and parry and backstab your way to victory.

In terms of difficulty Code Vein is balanced to feel alot easier than other souls-like games. It feels like a familair, casual game to experienced souls-like players, and I think it would make a great entry-level game for players new to the genre.

Conclusions

Code Vein is a fun romp of an action RPG. It has a clunky and awkward story, with too much exposition for exposition sake, which drags on the gameplay experience. If you can see past this failing, you will find a game which has fast paced, fun combat tin a beautifully realised game world, and is worth playing for people who are interested in the souls-like genre. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it adds some nice gameplay elements which lead the game to feel unique in its own way, and the style is a nice vibrant splash of colour in a traditionally bleak and dark genre.

Impressions: Horizon Zero Dawn

“My whole life I lived as an outcast…”

Aloy

Set in the 31st century, 1000 years after our civilization has ended. Horizon Zero Dawn has a strong reputation as one of the best games on PS4. To my shame, it has taken me this long to finally play it, and I can confirm that its reputation is well deserved.

In this world, humanity has returned to tribal societies, and animalistic machines are found across the continents, hostile to humans, and hunted for their parts. You play as Aloy, a tribal outcast and expert huntress, who sets out into the world to find her place in it. The game is a third-person action game, with a wonderfully realised world to explore, that is large enough to feel fun to explore, without being so big that it becomes intimidating or boring.

The gameplay revolves around traversing this beautiful world and avoiding/hunting the dangerous machines that can be found throughout it, with story missions playing out on variations of machine hunts, which have a passing similarity to the hunts of Monster Hunter World, and human raider camp attacks, which have a similar feel to the predator sections of the aforementioned Batman Arkham series of games.

Despite the familiarity of these gameplay elements, Horizon Zero Dawn ties these sections together creatively and cohesively, creating a game that is polished and fun to play, without getting monotonous. With such a well realised world and gameplay structure, it is only fitting to have an excellent story and set of characters to compliment the finely tuned framework that has been built in Zero Dawn. And boy does this game deliver.

Storytelling

Starting with the protagonist, Aloy, she is one of my favorite protagonists of all time in video games. Throughout the game, she is an outsider and looked down upon by others. But for all of the cultural opposition she faces, her competence always challenges the pre-conceptions that others have about her. She works hard to be an elite huntress, and her confidence in her abilities shines through in her dialogue. She is not overly cocky, but has a dry and witty sense of humour that carries Aloy through the social situations that she has not learned the ‘appropriate’ etiquette for, by virtue of her outcast upbringing. We need more female protagonists like Aloy in video games.

This well-written protagonist and dialogue carry the story comfortably, as you will naturally care for the issues that Aloy cares about, but it is hard to tell exactly what outcome she will root for when the chips are down. She wants to protect people but is intrinsically drawn to oppose certain cultural power structures that those people support. It is an interesting story to follow.

Gameplay

Aloy is equipped with a range of weapons that carry a variety of ammunition types that are suited to different kinds of encounters, from humans to the wide variety of machines you can encounter. Each machine has its weaknesses and strengths, and as the game progresses you will learn how to defeat each machine, as well as turn machines against each other and even ride them. The combat in these scenarios is crisp and you feel powerful and accomplished with every machine you kill. Even the lowest level machines leave you feeling a sense of satisfaction when you fell them in the middle of a hectic fight, as you thin the herd to deal with the more challenging machines.

Each fight is an exciting, edge of your seat experience, and I have frequently found myself spamming dodge-rolls to get enough space to evaluate a combat encounter that has gone sidewise because I have not properly assessed what machines are in play in the field. I always just about manage to find the space needed and clutch those victories from the jaws of defeat. It feels awesome.

The raider-camp segments are not particularly challenging, particularly if you have played the Batman Arkham games, but they are well constructed, and add a welcome level of variety to the gameplay you experience in Zero Dawn.

The game also contains a handful of collectibles, which are manageable in number, and you get access to their location maps immediately, so you will not be stuck trying to find 200 feathers in every nook and cranny of the environment. This is nice, and these are tied to data points that give you insight into the world 1000 years prior that led to the current post-apocalyptia. It is not exposition that is necessary for the plot to be understood, but rather a nice cherry of details on top of a well made and well-iced cake, avoiding some of the pitfalls of the overly lengthy encyclopedia that needs to be read in games like Mass Effect to understand why certain things are happening.

Conclusion

This is a beautiful, fun, and exciting game. There is a reason why Horizon Zero Dawn is so well regarded, and I couldn’t recommend a game more. If you, like me until recently, have not played this game, I would recommend finding a copy and playing it before you consider leaving this generation of consoles behind.

Personal Identity In Persona 5: Honne and Tatemae

This article contains spoilers for Persona 5

One of the key themes explored in Persona 5 is that of identity. Who are you behind all of society’s expectations of who you are? It starts with your character, Joker.

Joker is a new student at Shujin Academy, with a criminal record for assault. As to be expected rumours spin around your character about what kind of villain he is, after all, he is on probation and was expelled from his last school. He is outcast from those around him before he even has a chance to make an impression.

But the truth is that Joker tried to stop a man from sexually assaulting a woman who was calling for help. The man was particularly powerful and wealthy and scared the woman into making a statement against Joker. Thus Joker starts the game criminalised for doing the right thing when everyone else looked the other way.

The first friend Joker makes is Ryuji, a fellow outcast from the school after getting in a fight with the gym teacher who ran the running club. Again Ryuji is outcast for being a thug, but society does not understand the reality of the situation; that Kamoshida the gym teacher is an abusive letch, who physically beats his students for not performing. Ryuji fought back against this abuse and was firmly beaten by the adult Kamoshida, who broke Ryuji’s leg in the process, permanently ending Ryuji’s promising future as a star athlete. No one knows the truth, everyone believes the teacher, because he is the one to be trusted.

The disparity between truth and society’s perception and the divide between the inner self and outer expectations is a key part of Japanese culture, which is described in Japan as ‘honne’ and ‘tatemae’.

Honne and Tatemae

Honne are the true feelings that someone has. The word translates to “true sound” and what honne is, is the true sound of someone’s heart. In Japanese culture, one’s honne is kept well hidden, never shown in society, and only shared with one’s closest confidants.

This is contrasted with Tatemae, which is what is society expects of you. Tatemae translates to “built in front” or “façade” and this is what you allow everyone in society to see. Your honne is always hidden behind your tatemae.

Social scientists have studied the phenomenon of honne and tatemae as being linked to Japan’s high population density, and the perception of incredible politeness and decorum that is noted in Japanese culture.

Everyone lives in such close proximity, it is important that people get along and cooperate with each other, so the idea behind honne and tatemae is that you set aside your wants and desires for the betterment of the whole. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.

When this societal construct works it results in a polite society where arguments should not happen over trivial matters and respect is shown to everyone by everyone. People know how to treat others and how they will be treated in return and so the status quo should be respected for mutual benefit, regardless of personal feelings to the contrary.

But humans are rarely perfect.

But what happens when everyone is expected to be polite and respectful and someone with power uses these expectations to abuse others?

This is a question that is asked globally in our world, and this is the power dynamic that Persona 5 explores.

Unlocking your Persona

In Persona 5 your characters are supported in combat by personas, manifestations of who they are in their hearts. To unlock their persona a character is driven to desperation. A point where they must fight or die. And as they reach a point of desperation and choose to live, they tear off masks that they wear in the metaverse, which are connected to their face. It is painful and bloody, but in tearing off their mask they free their persona.

A symbolic embodiment of the conflict of tatemae and honne. Tatemae the mask that is worn, but when someone comes who can take advantage of tatemae, one’s honne presses against tatemae, a cry for rebellion. Rebellion against social expectations. Rebellion against social norms. Rebellion against how things are.

When others use societal expectation to crush you, survival comes when self is placed before societal expectation.

Persona 5 uses imagery to give voice to the very real struggle that people face in our world.

The #metoo movement is born from this conflict. A societal expectation existed that certain kinds of behaviour happened in professional environments between men and women, particularly because powerful men could ruin the careers and lives of those women whom they have targeted. But the hearts of women who have been wronged push against this societal expectation and power dynamic. #metoo was born from the rebellious honne, taking supremacy over tatemae.

From this rebellion, a new societal expectation can be built. One that could not have existed if not for those who chose to forsake their social standing and image for the drive of their hearts.

Achieving Balance

So is tatemae something wrong and to be avoided? No. Life in a community is all about balance. When everyone focuses on self-interest, it leads to people not helping others and leads to a breakdown of community. It is not a surprise that in the western world, which touts individuality, that depression and isolation, particularly in big cities, are the key mental health issues of our time. Neither should a blind eye be turned to injustice simply for the sake of societal appearances because that is what gives strength to those individuals who use their societal position to abuse those around them.

Unfortunately, I do not have the five-point-plan to achieve this balance, as it comes from the individual choices that people in the community have to make for themselves. No doubt if we managed to get this perfect we would resolve the largest sum of our societal issues.

In the meantime, I am going to continue enjoying Persona 5’s exploration of these issues.

Flashback Friday: No Man’s Sky – A Zen Exploration

This Flashback Friday I look back at the first video game article I ever wrote on this blog. It is crazy to think this happened over a year ago! I hope you enjoy this early exploration into video game blogging.


No Man’s Sky – A Zen Exploration

I have a full-time job.

I have a young child who I have to put to bed as soon as I get home after a long work day.

I have very little mental capacity to focus on anything when I finally sit down and rest.

No Man’s Sky has been my game of choice for these days.

I have Dark Souls, The Witcher 3, and even Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain in my catalogue of games I need to finish, but these are all games that require more thought and mental activity than I can muster at the end of a long day, as I am sure more than a fair number of ‘grown-up’ video game fans can attest to. It is in this exhausted mental void that I discovered the beauty that is No Man’s Sky.

At its launch No Man’s Sky was a monumental flop with everyone who had been interested in the game. I was not one of those people, having heard of No Man’s Sky in video game media, but nothing about it seemed to spark my curiosity. This is something I am incredibly grateful for, as it means I have not approached the game from a place of previously being burned by it. In the years since initial release No Man’s Sky has had several large updates, including Atlas Rises and NEXT. After these updates I found it selling for £10 on the PlayStation Store, and noted that it had started to get some positive reviews. I figured I would give it a shot, if the game was rubbish I wouldn’t need to cry over it. With this in mind I took to the stars.

This is not so much a review, as there are plenty of those elsewhere, as it is a record of my experience with this controversial game. I really love this game. I have recorded about 32 hours gameplay, and it has been a relaxing exploration through the vast emptiness of space. I have a handful of personal ships and one large Freighter, which I treat mostly as storage for the various items I collect. I have the beginnings of a base, which I initially built simply to further one of the in-game quest lines, but have slowly started to add to as my desire to do so has grown. There are lots of ‘bits’ to do, lots of quests, which are generally not my cup of tea and I simply activate so they can be fulfilled in the background to reward my own exploration, but they mostly follow the same formula and get repetitive easily. However the exploration truly is the name of this game.

My favourite thing to do in No Man’s Sky is land on a planet I like to look of, so no scorched or barren ones thank you very much, and just explore. Scanning all the animals I can find, looking for strange new plants on the surface, then hopping in my ship, flying a bit further around the planet, and hopping out again to see if there is anything I have missed. Ensuring I stop by any outposts on the surface, and have a good old-fashioned loot, is simple and repetitive, but the infinite variation of kinds of animals and plants makes this experience a tranquil one. With headphones on you become your traveller, listening for the squeaks or creaks of animals, exploring caves, or just stopping to get a beautiful view of the procedurally generated universe. The photo above I took on a toxic planet, which I just thoroughly enjoyed exploring. I can’t put my finger on what it was about this planet that kept me exploring for several evenings in a row, but it was an immersive and compelling experience, that truly helped me to relax at the end of a long day.

no-mans-sky_20180819191735-e1538941701463.jpg
Giant antlered care-bears are the perfect way to relax at the end of the day.

With the approach I take to exploration the piecemeal storyline and drips of information as and when you find specific monoliths or computers works perfectly. I am not playing this game desiring a story, and so the little bits I pick up on different planets make me feel like an archaeologist picking through the pieces of an ancient civilisation. I can see how this game is not everyone’s cup of tea, and in a different life I think I would be among those people, but when you are exhausted, sometimes it is nice to just take to the stars and see what you can find.

There is a kind of multiplayer in this game, but I don’t enjoy other people entering my game-space. I like multiplayer in other games, but when it comes to No Man’s Sky, having another player on your isolated planet is like having someone trampling on your freshly planted flowerbed, it interrupts the very thing you are there to enjoy. Whenever someone starts to connect to my currently habited galaxy I always get that feeling of ‘out of all the galaxies in the universe you had to warp into mine’. Which is quite funny given the name of the game. The feeling of isolation is one that I crave in-game, and this is probably due to the strain of being an introvert working in a very extrovert-centric job.

This game is a real joy. Is it perfect? No. is it grindy? Kinda. Is fun? Absolutely. This limitless, isolated exploration is something that will keep me coming back to No Man’s Sky for years to come, when I get tired of the story driven games I tend to be drawn to, and with its recent update, that I will soon be playing, I am looking forward to many new and interesting things to discover.

If you like this article check out more video game impressions here.

Impressions: Death Stranding

Hideo Kojima is a renowned video game auteur, who has always brought a distinctive and unique approach to video game design, blending innovative gameplay with serious subject matters alongside wacky easter eggs and comic-bookesque villains. The stories in his flagship Metal Gear Solid franchise were always convoluted, confusing, but also deeply touching stories of humans in conflict.

One of the higher-profile controversies in the gaming world over the past 5 years was the breakdown in the relationship between Hideo Kojima and Konami, the company that had published every game he worked on. Konami removed Kojima’s name from all promotional material for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, pulled the plug on the hotly anticipated Kojima-led relaunch of Silent Hill and refused to allow Kojima to accept an award for his work on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It was a very public breakup that felt very uncomfortable for long-time fans of Kojima’s work.

But Hideo Kojima left Konami and set up a new production company working for Sony, and immediately began work on a new IP

That IP was Death Stranding.

Death-Stranding-Box

When it was announced all that could be said about it is that it looked…odd. Norman Reedus, in the nude, stood on a beach with a baby. What on earth is this game going to be about?

The answer when it comes is undeniably unexpected.

It’s a game about a postman.

Norman Reedus, the player character is a postman, and you are going to be spending several hours doing something that has become an overused staple of all MMO RPGs and sandbox games: fetch quests.

Take X from point A to point B.

Death-Stranding-cargo
Inventory management, the best part of any game!

It’s so simple, but at the same time so much more is going on. Because it is not just about fetch quests. Death Stranding tells a story about connections. The world has been torn to pieces by the mysterious event known as the Death Stranding, and everyone is isolated and divided. And you walk across the country to bring people together.

Hideo Kojima has always invited us to experience video games as art, and Death Stranding is a poem.

Of course, not everyone likes poems, and I would not begrudge someone who does not enjoy what Death Stranding has to offer. But if you want something different and are willing to open yourself to it, the game speaks volumes.

The game connects you to players all over the world, not by traditional multiplayer, but rather by seeing structures other players have placed in the world. You can place a ladder or a rope to traverse an impassable cliff, and other players around the world can use it too. Likewise, you will be able to use the buildings and constructs that other players who came before you have utilised. You are independent, but you are connected, and those connections are good. In days when Western politics are increasingly polarised, having the message reinforced that we are human and we are better connected cannot help but bring comfort to those of us who are weary of partisan conflict. It is a message that comes at the right time and the right place.

Traversal is a challenge by itself – you have to ensure your cargo is properly balanced and you are taking easy routes to ensure you do not trip or fall. You need to plan for what is coming ahead of you and take it easy, not overexerting yourself to get to your destination.

Enemies are a real threat, with human MULE’s wanting to steal your cargo and invisible BT’s creepily hunting you, you will need to work out the best ways to creep past or avoid them, or as the case may be, fight them. But combat is not the focus of this game and it is not build to be an action game. If you get attacked you can lose cargo, which can be knocked off your back or destroyed, and if that happens you fail your mission. So you again need to appropriately plan for what enemies and challenges you will face along the way.

Death_Stranding_bt
This is all you can see as the BTs stalk you…

Music is beautiful and sometimes haunting, setting the scene of an isolated but oddly connected experience, and the graphics are beautiful. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit down and enjoy the view, and that is something Death Stranding lets you do.

I am over 11 hours into the game, and still am not certain about everything that is going on. There is an expansive plot and I have no idea who the bad guys are at this point in time, but I am excited to find out. I am enjoying everything I am being asked to experience and can’t wait to see what more Kojima has planned for me.

DS harmonica
Nothing like playing the harmonica in your downtime…

If all you are looking for in a game is fast-paced action then this is probably not the game for you. If however, you are a fan of Hideo Kojima this game is an obvious buy. If you are looking for a different experience in gaming then this game might just be what you are looking for. I have always felt that video games are art, and for me, Death Stranding stands as a beautiful testament to that claim.

Mental Health in Video Games: Metal Gear Solid V

This article contains massive spoilers for the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Metal Gear Solid V is a mixed bag of a game.

It has excellent, polished gameplay, offset by cut content and erratic storytelling. But that does not prevent the finale to this iconic video game saga from moments of heart-wrenching storytelling brilliance.

The theme of the game is in the title, ‘phantom pain’. The sensation of feeling something you have lost. The experience of living after trauma and the scars that you bear as a result.

This is represented physically in the loss of Snake’s arm, but goes so much deeper in the storytelling than that.

Trauma

The game starts in Ground Zeroes with a rescue mission. You have to save a child soldier, Chico, and an enemy spy, Paz, from a US military base situated on Cuba, which is a representation of Guantanamo Bay in all but name.

ground zeroes

If you have played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker this opening is particularly impactful. These are two characters that were an uplifting and friendly presence throughout the game, as you built up Militares Sans Frontiers, and your Mother Base. Right up to Paz’s heel turn at the end of the game they are friends, and even then Paz seems forced into her betrayal, wanting to spend just one more day with the new family she has found.

Snake goes in to rescue them, and finds them horribly broken and abused, victims of sexual violence and torturous surgical procedures. It is the darkest Metal Gear Solid has ever been and it is deeply upsetting and uncomfortable to see, bringing a jarring level of grittiness to always slightly wacky Metal Gear continuity.

You manage to rescue both and exfiltrate the black ops site, ready to return home. But then the real horror sets in. Paz has a bomb stitched inside her and the support team and Big Boss have to perform emergency surgery to remove the bomb whilst still in transit. No anesthesia, no antiseptic, just blood and pain.

paz

The bomb is removed successfully, but what awaits the rescue team on their return is nothing but further horror. They come back to Mother Base, the base you the player built in previous games, to find it under attack and burning. A surprise assault, and everyone was caught off guard. Everything you built is being destroyed. As you try to escape the onslaught, Paz awakens from her pain-induced stupor. ‘There is another bomb!’ In a panic she gets up and runs to the helicopter door. ‘Somewhere, you wouldn’t look,’ she says darkly, as she jumps out of the helicopter to save you, but it is too late. Paz explodes a few feet out of the helicopter, sending it and you crashing into the sea.

You awake 9 years later, in a hospital. Your face and body are scarred, a piece of bone-shrapnel is protruding from your head; it was embedded in part of your brain and could not safely be removed. Hundreds of pieces of bone and tooth shrapnel were removed from your body, but it was not safe to remove the pieces near your brain or your heart. Your arm is missing. The representation of the horror you just experienced.

But that is not the end.

You establish a new Mother Base, a new company, the Diamond Dogs, a new life. But the ghosts do not fade. As you explore your new Mother Base you come across an unexpected surprise. Paz is sat in a hospital bed in the Medical Wing. She is happy to see you and apparently has no recollection of the trauma she experienced. “She is experiencing some kind of dissociative disorder” your right-hand man announces as he stands next to you, she can’t seem to remember anything about what happened and seems trapped in her schoolgirl persona.

Suddenly you remember! The bomb was found! She said there was another and the medic managed to remove it in time. The helicopter crashed when it was attacked by a missile launch, not because of Paz exploding, which must have been some incorrect memory, or nightmare.

But she is clearly not well and is suffering from some kind of amnesia. You need to collect photos from old Mother Base staff to show her, to remind her who is really is and what happened.

Paz hospital

The collection of photos seems to bring back recollections but it does not sit well with Paz, leading her to feel increasingly sick and nauseous. And then it happens. You walk into her hospital room one day to see her facing away from you. Blood pooling on the floor beneath her. She turns around to face you and you see with horror she has cut open her belly and is digging through her own intestines as she cries out about there being another bomb inside her. You try to stop her. She is safe. You got the other bomb. And then she pulls it out. The second bomb. Suddenly you are back on the helicopter crying out for her as she jumps from the vehicle only to explode in mid-air. You awaken outside the medical ward to find it still under construction.

She never survived. You never had the conversations with your right-hand man about her. You are suffering from the dissociative disorder. You can hear her voice as she tells you she died long ago, and you need to learn to live with that. She is gone and she cannot be brought back, no matter who you kill or what you do.

The game’s twist ending is that you are not Big Boss. You are the medic from the helicopter, you missed the second bomb and your brain invented a world where you never made that mistake, where Paz didn’t die.

Snake mirror

In your comatose state you underwent hypnotherapy and cosmetic surgery to be a body double for Big Boss, and as the hypnotherapy wears off you remember everything.

Reflecting Real Life

In my life, I have had two experiences that resulted in emotional trauma, which impacted how I perceived the reality of the world around me, and both occurred within a relatively short period of time.

The first was the death of my Grandmother. It was sudden and unexpected, and I was close to her. For months after her death I would dream that she was alive and everything was normal, and these dreams would feel like memories. Being at her house it felt like she was just in another room. The reality that she is gone is one that feels more unreal than the belief that I might see her at any moment. I have had to consciously remind myself that she is dead many times, as my brain tries to hide that painful fact from me.

The second was the birth of my child. I was nervous about the dangers of childbirth, but after some perinatal classes, my fears were more settled. On the evening that my wife was in labour everything was progressing well, until it wasn’t. Unexpectedly my child turned its head and suddenly the doctors needed to rush us to the theatre. I have never felt such an acute sense of the possibility that I could lose the people I love the most dearly in my life, and that there was nothing I could do to help. I was stood there, forced to watch and unable to help as all my horrors seemed to be realised. Thankfully they were not. My wife and child were fine, but the emotional damage was present.

Sometime after the birth we were all home, when I went to go get a drink when I saw a water bottle we had used at the hospital. Suddenly I was back in that hospital theatre, panic and fear flooding my body. I had a panic attack. It felt completely real. I was back there again.

Catharsis

The way that Metal Gear Solid V explores the mental health of Punished (or Venom) Snake, is deep and impactful. It is hard to describe the experience of living with emotional trauma, but the final entry in the Metal Gear saga does it well.

Snake is not the only one left with emotional scars. He struggles with hallucinations and damaged memories, whilst his comrade Miller experiences a massive personality shift, driven by anger and rage, he loses the charming, cheery approach to leadership that he brought in Peace Walker.

In a similar way we all experience trauma differently. It can be hard to look at the pain you have experienced and find a way to process it. But sometimes naming something and experiencing something by proxy can help the process of healing. For me, playing The Phantom Pain has been part of that process. Seeing someone give words and pictures and sound to my experience, has helped me find catharsis.