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: 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.

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.

Impressions: The Spyro Reignited Trilogy

My first Spiro game was Spiro: Year of the Dragon and I remember loving it. It was simple, it was fun, it had some platforming based puzzles, which were perfect for a young gamer such as myself at the time. It was a light experience.

Because of this, my nostalgia hype-o-meter hit dangerously high levels when I discovered that a remake of Spyro was going to be made, only updating the graphics to current generation specs, whilst maintaining all of the old gameplay.

I was excited, after all this would be the perfect opportunity to experience the older games I never played in high fidelity, as well as getting to re-experience Year of the Dragon. So I had no choice but to get the eloquently titled Spyro Reignited Trilogy upon its release.

Spyro Game Case

My first impression upon loading up the game? The graphics are beautiful. This is Spyro as I remember it, but so much more polished. The colours are vibrant and the character models are crisp. Every level has been painstakingly recreated with precision and it feels like there is some love in there too.

This collection does not feel like so many ‘HD Remasters’ that we see frequently, which are in essence ports of older games with a bit of spit and polish, that are released, sometimes successfully, and sometimes like the infamous Silent Hill: HD Collection, very unsuccessfully. This collection is a remake, where the game has been rebuilt from scratch to bring it to us, and Insomniac Games were brought back, to work alongside the developer Toys for Bob, to ensure that everything about this project managed to get Spyro just right.

Spyro has never looked so pretty

I enjoy playing challenging games, but as many of you will be aware, there is only so long you can play difficult games before you need to take a break. The Spyro Reignited Trilogy is that break. It is a relaxing breath of fresh air. Simple puzzles are enjoyable to play, and this is a game I will be able to let my child play much sooner than Bloodborne or Metal Gear Solid. The flying levels are an actual challenge and a pain to get 100% completion on, but some challenges are to be welcomed when you have such an easy and relaxing time playing the rest of the game.

Furthermore, the trophies available in the game are a little bit outside of the box compared to the usual progress check trophies that are found in modern games. Trophies are granted for slightly more novel exercises, which take some intention to do. They are nothing complex, but it adds to the experience, making them similar to the classic skill points that still be obtained in-game.

I am enjoying working playing my way through the Spiro Reignited Trilogy, and it provides a crisp and nostalgic breath of fresh air to the modern line up of hardcore challenging games that I tend to spend more of my time playing.

Impressions: Persona 5

“Take your heart!”

Persona-5

The Persona series of games is well known in in gaming circles as an incredibly popular Japanese Roleplaying Game. Being hailed by some as the greatest JRPG of all time is what drew my attention to Persona 5.

I have a love-hate relationship with Japanese Roleplaying Games. When they are good, they are incredible, with my first exposure to them being the Pokémon games, followed by the Final Fantasy series and highlights in my experience including Dragon Quest VII and Ni No Kuni. But when they are bad they are long, boring, repetitive and grindy.

Persona 5 is, without a doubt, an excellent JRPG.

The first noticeable thing about this game is the lively jazzy music that accompanies the introduction sequence. The music is upbeat, and sets the dynamic atmosphere of the game so perfectly. The next thing you are introduced to is the beautiful anime art style that is eye catching and matches the music’s dynamic jazzy theme.

If you enjoy high quality anime animation, you will enjoy the cut scenes and art style of Persona 5.

But there is more to this game that music and animation.

The game follows Joker and his Phantom Thieves as they try to make the world a better place by changing the hearts of evil people by ‘stealing’ their twisted desires.  The way this works is very abstract and not the most clear, but in essence Joker and his Phantom Thieves can enter the subconscious world and through this can change the hearts of those around them.

Does it make perfect sense?

No.

Does it work?

Absolutely.

Take your Heart
Calling card of the Thieves…

The game structure takes the form of a series of heists that the Phantom Thieves have to complete as their world becomes increasingly complicated as the stakes and drama escalate.

The game is divided between ‘downtime’ activities where you can level up your personal stats, buy equipment and spend time with your ‘confidants’ who are friends you make along your journey, and ‘heists’ where you try to steal someone’s heart and have to fight shadowy monsters in turn based combat.

Combat works in a similar way to most turn based JRPGs; you have a team of characters that utilise a variety of attacks that have different elemental types, against enemies that have a variety of weaknesses. If you manage to hit an enemies weakness you can stun the enemy, and if you manage to stun the whole enemy team you can hold them up, either to attack them with a massive team attack, or to try to demand money or items from them. Successfully completing a hold up generally ends combat, so it is best to work out enemy weaknesses quickly in combat.

PT
Ready for action!

Your team also have weaknesses to certain elements, which can result in enemies chaining attacks against you. This means that combat can be over very quickly, either in your favour or a by way of a quick TPK.

The system has its ups and downs and combat swings from exciting to boring. It feels exciting when you work out an enemy’s weakness and suddenly have them at your mercy, and certain boss fights have dynamic battle elements that make those battles unique and more interesting. On the downside when you know an enemy weakness, every subsequent battle becomes a mere interrupt from the main exploration screen, because the battles have no challenge when you know an enemy’s weakness.

In an attempt to balance this there are some enemies that have elemental weaknesses but have such a large pool of hit-points that you do barely any damage even when hitting its weakness every turn. I find these fights frustrating as I have had encounters where I know an enemies weakness and spend 5-10 minutes hitting its weakness and holding it up and attacking, only for it to pull out an unexpected move chain that one-shots the party. Then I have to fight the start over with only a minor variation to account for that new move, but the slog of ‘hit the weak point’ makes this process tedious.

My greatest fear is enemies that have no weakness. These are dangerous because you are unable to stun lock them, unless you score a critical hit, but they can stun lock you. But when there is no elemental weakness it does mean you have to bring more strategy to combat, which is a good thing.

These niggles with combat only come out occasionally, and for the most part combat is fast paced and exciting, which adds to the dynamic feel of the game, and makes it exciting to play.

The story the game presents is very interesting. I have already written one article on how it explores anxiety and mental health issues, and have another planned on how the game explores identity and the Japanese concepts of honne and tatemae. There is a lot the game has to say about the human condition, and it is fun to explore these ideas in the manner the game presents them, and I have more articles planned for the future that will explore these ideas, giving them more space than I can offer them in this overview.

I can see why this game is so beloved. If you are not a fan of JRPG’s this is not likely to sway you, but if you are uncertain about the genre, it is hard to find a better example of a quality JRPG that is worth exploring the genre through. Suffice it to say this game is essential playing if you are a fan of JRPGs.

Persona 5 is the first game I played in the series and has a self-contained story, much like the Final Fantasy games. Because of this Persona 5 forms a perfect entry point to the series for anyone who is curious about what Persona has to offer.

I have not yet finished this game and am so excited to see what else this game has to offer. I will be sure to share future thoughts on this game with you, so feel free to follow this site or my twitter if you want to be updated when I post new content.

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Games We Grew Up With: Crash Team Racing

For some people their first racing game was Gran Turismo or Mario Cart, but for me my first racing game was Crash Team Racing.

CTR cover

In fact this was my first Crash Bandicoot game. I had played the original crash bandicoot at a friend’s house, but had never got further than the second level.

Crash Team Racing was a high quality cart racer. This game is one I remember because it was very accessible to my brothers and I as young players, and it really allowed us to play together. When my brothers played there were lots of moments where I as the older brother was asked to help get past a tough stage, and we shared in victories together.

Final Boss
Look at this cheat…

Whilst I have vague memories of the single player campaign, along with a final boss that would cheat by starting the final race before the countdown was to start the race was complete, where the real joy of this game came out was in the Battle Mode.

Pick your favourite racer and try to blow up the competition. This was a versus mode that my brothers and I played endlessly. We did not have a multi-tap for the ps1 and so only could play 1-v-1, and we would play winner stays on, obviously the most fair way to play that totally didn’t mean that I, the oldest brother could just keep playing endlessly. It was a good way for us to let out that sibling competitiveness.

Battle Mode
Let family fun commence…

This was a game that brought my brothers and I together, both when we were trying to get past a hard race, or in the arena, joined in rivalrous combat.

Something that is funny about looking back at the these games that I grew up with is not always the single player experience I remember, but rather how these games brought me closer to my brothers, and how those experiences were something we could share in together.

I am aware that Crash Team Racing has recently been remastered, but I am not sure that it is a game I will pick up soon. My brothers don’t have PS4s and we have all have our own lives in different parts of the country, it is hard to sit down and play together.

But in a few years my child will be old enough to start playing games. And Crash Team Racing might well be the perfect way for us to share in a piece of my childhood together.

Did you ever play Crash Team Racing? Did you prefer it as a single player or a multi-player experience? Share your stories in the comments below!

 

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Games We Grew Up With: Spider-Man

‘Greetings true believers and newcomers alike…’

Spiderman.jpg

Spider-Man on the original Playstation was one of the first games where I ever played as a super hero, and also one of the first games that gave me nightmares.

The game starts with a splash screen where you can pick the difficulty. My brothers spent too many minutes enjoying the different voices that announced ‘kid mode’ every time it was selected, scrolling through the voice actors for each of the villains in the game.

I did not want to play on ‘kid mode’ because little nine-year-old me was not a ‘kid’ anymore…after struggling with the first level for quite some time I returned to that kid mode, and began the game in earnest.

This game was everything a comic fan in the early 2000’s could want, a very complete roster of Spider-Man’s villains, guest appearances from many other comic heroes, vocal performances by Stan Lee and solid web-slinging action!

The graphics were as blocky as one would expect given the limitations of the Playstation, but that did not matter; the art style was vibrant and the gameplay was fun.

spiderman comic cover

My first Spider-Man comic, was a collection titled Spider-Man vs Venom, and I remember absolutely loving that Venom made a key appearance in this game. In fact he and his species, the symbiotes were a key plot point. Because symbiotes were resistant to the damage you could cause you needed to get special fire-web to burn them, don’t ask how that works, the answer didn’t matter to me at the time.

But despite how fun it was I never completed this game. I got stuck in the final encounter that pitted you against the ultimate horror for any 9-year-old.

Monster Ock.

monster-ock.jpg
Literal nightmare fuel…

A twisted combination of Doctor Octopus and Carnage, this boss screeched inhumanely, could not be fought, and was an instant game over if it caught you.

All you could do is run…through a convoluted vent system with janky controls.

I lost so many times I had nightmares of being chased by Monster Ock, all whilst he was screeching ‘it’s not over yyyyyeeeeet!’

Whilst I never returned to the game there have been  even more delightful Spider-Man games that have been made in the 15-years since them, which have expanded upon the delightful gameplay and comic experience that we were first introduced in this Playstation classic.

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Mental Health in Video Games: Persona 5

This article contains significant plot spoilers for Persona 5

Persona 5 is a game that I have quite a bit to say about. In the pipeline I am planning on publishing articles giving my impressions on the game as well as a deep dives into how they explore concepts of identity.

I have not yet completed the game, but it is already overflowing with interesting things to write about.

Last night I was streaming Persona 5 and the game took its own deep dive in to a pretty intense topic. You are asked to help a girl who suffers from extreme social anxiety and depression.

The Set Up

For those unfamiliar with Persona 5, it is a game where you take on the role of the Phantom Thieves; a group of teenagers who can jump into the subconscious of truly twisted people, and ‘steal their heart’, forcing them to undergo a severe personality change for the better. For a gaming analogy think of a slightly more dramatic system of the heart-healing mechanic of Ni No Kuni.

Up to this point in the game you have stolen the hearts of an abusive school teacher, who sexually abused female students and physically abused male students; an organised crime boss, who blackmailed and stole from people for his own financial gain; and an artist, who stole the work of his students and claimed it as his own, allowing a particularly talented student to die so that he could get away with his scheme.

All of your targets up to this point are evil people who harm the world. The concept of ‘twisted desires’ is very obvious when it comes to these kinds of people; they are the archetypal villains for stories. You enter their subconscious, steal their treasure, and it causes a change of heart. They feel remorse for their actions, hand themselves into the police, and allow victims to begin the healing process. A classic heroes tale.

But then the Phantom Thieves are recruited by Futaba.

Futaba is a girl who suffers from extreme social anxiety and depression. She is a hacking expert and traces down the Phantom Thieves, and blackmails them into stealing another heart. Her own.

She wants to be free from her anxiety and depression, and she knows the Thieves might be able to help her with this, so she sets herself as their target.

Entering the Heart of Darkness

The subconscious desires of regular people do not have a significant impact on the subconscious world the Phantom Thieves can enter, known as the ‘metaverse’. When someone has truly twisted desires though, these dark desires shape the metaverse into a palace. The palace of each person reflects how they view their ‘domain’. The teacher’s palace took the form of a castle located at his school. The crime boss’ palace took the form of a bank located in the central business district. The artist’s palace took the form of a museum located over his studio.

Futaba’s palace takes the form of a tomb, and is located at her home.

It is more ornate than a regular graveyard; Futaba’s palace is a great pyramid located in an almost endless desert. It is huge, it is grand, and it is utterly isolating. Throughout the pyramid are traps and walls designed to keep people out. Although Futaba has asked for help, her subconscious tries to kill the Phantom Thieves. She wants help, but her heart fights the introspection.

As the Phantom Thieves explore her palace they see glimpses of what ties her heart into this tomb.

Her mother committed suicide in front of her.

She blames herself for her mother’s death. She remembers times when she felt that she was a burden on her mother, a drain that led her to killing herself. These memories form murals on the pyramid’s walls. The Phantom Thieves slowly break into her subconscious and encounter these deeply intimate and painful memories.

It is an intense experience to play through.

Opening the Door

At the end of the palace is a door.

A door that cannot be opened by the Phantom Thieves. A door that requires them to meet Futaba in the real world. The subconscious door represents her hearts deepest layers. It appears as her bedroom door.

If Futaba does not believe anyone can get through this door, it is impossible for anyone to get through the door in her subconscious.

Only Futaba can open this door.

The Phantom Thieves go to her house and wait outside her door for her to invite them in. She needs to take action to address the issues in her heart. She can’t rely on others to fix her. She needs to not only say she wants help but also open herself up to the help that is offered.

She has to confront her extreme anxiety.

She has to let people in.

Which she does. Futaba invites the Phantom Thieves in to her most vulnerable place, where she hides from the world, and in so doing allow the Phantom Thieves to access to the inner sanctum of her subconscious.

Facing Demons

The Phantom Thieves steal their way through her inner sanctum to find Futaba’s treasure. They find a sarcophagus. The treasure is held therein. But before the Thieves can open it they are attacked.

They are drawn into combat by Futaba’s mother. Or to be more accurate, a dark, twisted representation of Futaba’s mother. Futaba’s subconscious has created a monster out of her mother. It takes the form of a great sphinx, which keeps its distance, it is aloof and hard to hit, spewing hateful things about Futaba. The Phantom Thieves cannot beat it.

That is when Futaba enters her subconscious world.

The only way that this demon can be beaten is by Futaba realising that it is not her mother. Futaba has to remember the truth. How loved she was. She has to differentiate between the lies and the truth. That her pain has warped her memories. Hurtful things she was told by family members that blamed her for her mother’s death are not true.

As Futaba faces her own heart and comes to understand how her heart has warped her memories and created a tomb for itself she becomes able to provide the key to defeating the demonic representation of her mother.

Once the representation is defeated, Futaba leaves, allowing the Phantom Thieves to complete their task.

But the sarcophagus is empty.

Futaba has already left.

She was the treasure all along, and she had to find herself, hidden behind layers of hurt, pain, and warped perceptions. She had to look at the truth hidden behind the lies, and remember who she was, and who her mother truly was.

And with that discovery the palace begins to collapse…

Mental Health

Mental health is a difficult topic to address. Every person’s experience of mental illness can be radically different, and can stem from completely different experiences. This makes it hard to talk about, particularly in media where mental illness can so easily be trivialised or glamorised.

This Futaba story arc is not over, but getting to where I am in the game was a powerful and personal experience for me. I joked several times on stream that I would love to have an app that could give me access to the kind of breakthroughs Futaba experienced in an hour and a half of gameplay. Months of cognitive behavioural therapy condensed into mere minutes.

But the world is not as easy as video games.

Art reflects life, and this story arc was powerful because there is truth in the story it presents about the human experience of mental illness. Help is available, but it takes work to address. There are no easy fixes, and resolving issues can take you to painful places. But if twisted perceptions are not confronted they can create demons, which are even harder to put to rest.

There is no ‘YAY MENTAL ILLNESS IS SOLVED!’ at the end of this article. It is a real problem and if you struggle with it, I recommend getting help.

Exposure to this story arc is the kind of thing that helps me contextualise some of my experience of mental illness and give pictures and words to emotions and thoughts. I am very much looking forward to continuing to explore what Persona 5 has to offer.

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Games We Grew Up With: Tekken 3

‘HIAH!’ – Paul, Tekken 3

I remember the first time I played the original Sony Playstation. It was a Christmas, and my parents had bought the Playstation for my uncle. The Playstation came with a demo disc, which had demos for several games, including a strange physics game where you play as a rubber ball, and a fighting game.

A fighting game named Tekken 3.

Tekken 3

I played that demo endlessly with my younger brothers that Christmas.

There were two playable characters; Eddie Gordo and Ling Xiaoyu. We button mashed the new controllers and fought back to back, never tiring from the lack of character options that were available to us. That didn’t matter to us. We had never experienced anything quite like this before.

 

Eddievling.jpg
I can hear the commentator to this day…

 

At the end of that Christmas our uncle let us bring the Playstation home with us.

That was a wonderful and unexpected gift.

My brothers and I would play Tekken 3 so much our thumbs would end up blistered; this was a game that really brought us together and gave us something we could share in together.

 

controller
Those textured analog sticks would wear down so quickly…

 

I remember when my parents rented the full version of Tekken 3 from Blockbuster (remember that place?!) my brothers were not allowed to play it because they were outside of the ‘age range’ that was on the box, even though they were little pros with the demo.

So I would play it with my parents. We would play the newly unlocked characters. Again endlessly, again with blistered thumbs.

It was fun.

There was one point in time when my brothers tried to sneak into the room in which Tekken 3 was being played, and they got really freaked out by King’s growls. I think it actually gave them nightmares. At the time they learned their lesson until they were old enough.

king
Nightmare fuel for little brothers…

Tekken 3 is the earliest game I remember playing with my whole family, and it was a game that kept on giving.

I remember everyone being blown away when we unlocked our first character for completing the game.

We didn’t know that games could do that!

You play the game and unlock even more content!

Then there were the secret bosses…I remember being with my brothers when we were shocked about discovering the fight against Ogre.

Not only was he a secret boss, but he could also fly and breathe fire! He broke all the rules we knew you could use! He was scary and awesome, and so exciting to fight against. When we beat him we were thrilled! How could this get any better?!

Then we unlocked Gon…

Gon

A tiny farting dinosaur.

What could be better?!

This was my peak gaming experience as a child; playing the serious and sometimes spooky fighting game, and eventually unlocking a tiny dinosaur that could beat enemies by rolling into them and expelling gas.

What more could you want from a game?

Tekken 3 was an amazing personal entry into console gaming, and solidified gaming as something I loved and brought the family together. The game itself had good progression for character unlocks and, for the time, amazing graphics, particularly for someone who had only ever played a Gameboy!

Tekken 3 may be old, but it is forever held my memories it is always one of the greatest video games that has ever been made, and I will die on that hill!

What was the first game you played that you really felt brought you closer to your friends or family?

Leave a comment below and share your story! I will tie some of these experiences into future articles in this series.

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