Corruption, Corporatism, and Failed Critiques: An Analysis of Cyberpunk 2077

**SPOILER WARNING**

Cyberpunk 2077 has arrived and, as has already been covered by a wide variety of outlets, it’s not nearly as impressive as we’d all hoped. While the game does have some redeeming qualities, it’s largely not as impressive as one would hope from the game studio known for the incredible Witcher series.

This is not a review of Cyberpunk 2077, though (you can read that here). Right now, we’re interested in what the game is saying, what its messages, meanings, and themes are focused on, and how well it conveys those ideas. When examining it from that perspective, what we get is still a somewhat disappointing result: a critique of authority without much to say and an examination of humanity that lacks real depth.

A Tale of Two Legends

First off, as covered in our review of Cyberpunk 2077, the game is closer to a sci-fi action noir story than true cyberpunk. It features all the requisite aesthetics of a cyberpunk narrative, such as extensive body modification, a dystopian future controlled by corporations, and a contrast between advanced technology and extreme poverty, but doesn’t explore any of those elements very well. The story itself is singularly focused on two characters: the protagonist V and Johnny Silverhand.

V is an up-and-coming mercenary in Night City, game’s main setting. The prologue sees them taking a job to break into a high-end hotel and steal a biochip with a person’s consciousness encoded onto it. Things go wrong, naturally, and that biochip winds up jammed into V’s head, malfunctions, and starts overwriting their personality with that of Johnny Silverhand’s. Johnny is a character from the original tabletop RPGs, Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk 2020, a rockerboy who despises corporate power and wants to see them all burned to the ground. Together with V, the pair seeks out a means of saving their respective lives.

Fight the Power

Cyberpunk 2077 has three main story missions that lead into the final quest, each of which has you exploring different areas and organizations in the world. One asks you to work with a nomad clan on the outskirts of Night City, while another has you infiltrating a corporate-run festival, and the third sees you tracking down the person who ordered the initial job to steal the biochip. Each of them shows you a different part of this world you inhabit, be it the close, communal bonds of the nomad clans, the high life and sleek polish of corporate life, or the grunge and dirt forced upon the city’s underclasses.

Each these three missions hold much the same themes – individual people and the relationships between them are good, while the faceless megacorps that toss human life away thoughtlessly are bad. Combined with Johnny’s occasional rants about the soulless corpos and the necessity of rebellion. This would be a good base from which to build a strong anti-authority message – except the game goes and sabotages itself.

Corrupted Systems, Corrupted People

Even as the game tries to make a critique of the corporate mindset, it also shows us that individual people are responsible for the majority of the problems that V and Johnny face. Specifically, Yorinobu Arasaka, who murders his father Saburo and takes control of the Arasaka Corporation. One of the three main story missions is all about contacting his sister, Hanako, to convince her to oust him from power.

Characters associated with the Arasaka Corporation put great value on family, emphasizing the personal ties over the business ones. In this way, the blame is shifted away from the corporate structures and towards the individuals who hold power within those structures. A truly anti-corporate story might show us how this myth of the problem simply being the ‘wrong people’ holding authority is a lie and how it’s the corporation itself the forces people into dehumanizing situations. Cyberpunk 2077 never really does this as it is most concerned with the personal ties of the characters, not the ways they interact with these systems.

Respect the Law

This lack of self-awareness can be seen in other, finer aspects of the game as well. For example, it’s very odd for an anti-authority game to litter your map with missions from the Night City Police Department but none from the various gangs and criminal organizations present in the city. Whether you want it or not, V is a surprisingly law-abiding mercenary who dutifully avoids any serious dealings with the gangs and almost exclusively helps the police rather than working against them, as one might expect from one actually rebelling against authority.

The society of Night City is similarly hierarchical, with prostitutes and other sex workers pushed to the bottom and other, more ‘respectable’ professions given greater credence. This could be used to talk about the commodification of bodies and bodily autonomy, but Cyberpunk 2077 largely avoids any difficult discussions of that nature. Mostly, the low lifestyle of Night City residents is used mostly to establish a gritty backdrop for the very individualistic story of V and Johnny.

The Corps Always Win

In conclusion, Cyberpunk 2077 is an anti-authority, anti-corporate story without fangs or claws. It rails against the system without actually showing how systemic injustices are perpetrated and perpetuated. Body modification and other hallmarks of the cyberpunk genre are relegated to set dressing more than anything else.

It’s not necessarily a bad story. The dynamic between V and Johnny is interesting and the idea of what it might be like to have two consciousness struggling over a single body is intriguing – it just isn’t explored as well as it could be. The marketing surrounding this release promised a ground-breaking new world to explore. What was delivered was, disappointingly, a mediocre criticism of corporate culture that doesn’t go nearly as far as it should.

Further Reading

Cyberpunk 2077’s Politics Should Be as Powerful as Its Aesthetics | Paste

Cyberpunk 2077 is dad rock, not new wave | Polygon

Life, Death, and Life Again: An Analysis of Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Some games weave their stories into their main mechanics, creating an inventive or clever narrative and wow us with innovative storytelling. Others simply have stories, ones disconnected from the gameplay and could be told in another genre just as easily. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the latter, though that doesn’t mean the story told here is any less impactful.

The sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest features the title character Ori once again as they travel to a new forest, Niwen, in search of their lost friend, Ku. Here, they find a land in the grip of death and decay with corruption and despair spreading in every direction. It’s a rich setting that explores many of the same themes of the first game, though here it does so under a different light.

The Blind Forest

First, let’s recap what exactly happens in the first Ori game. The primary conflict of Ori and the Blind Forest comes from Kuro, a massive owl who removed the light from the Spirit Tree of Nibel in order to save her eggs, which were being hurt by the light. The absence of the light has led to imbalance and corruption in the forest, and Ori must free various elements around Nibel from that corruption to restore the light.

At the end of the game, Kuro corners Ori and seizes the light. However, Ori’s surrogate mother, Naru, arrives to aid Ori and her selfless actions force Kuro to reckon with what she’s become. She realizes that the imbalance in the forest is endangering her last remaining egg as a fire is nearing her nest, and so decides to restore the light herself. This winds up killing her, and Kuro cannot stand the full force of the light once it has been replaced in the Spirit Tree.

Balancing Act

In many ways, we can look at the story of the first Ori game as a struggle between light and dark. Kuro, being a nocturnal owl, represents the dark and Ori represents light. In the absence of either of those two forces, the forest descends into chaos and corruption. It’s much more nuanced examination of the two sides that goes beyond a simplistic ‘light good, dark bad’ message.

This theme of balance is also present in Ori and the Will of the Wisps. However, this game explores that idea from a different angle, as any good sequel should. This gives rises to new meanings and interpretations. In this game, the light is similarly absent from the forest, leading to imbalance and corruption. Unlike Ori and the Blind Forest, however, it wasn’t a force of darkness that removed the light, but rather the death of Niwen’s Spirit Willow by natural causes. This leads to a different force that also plagues the land in addition to corruption – the force of decay.

Stony Silence

Decay is essentially death for Niwen and its inhabitants, but a more final form of death than most. It literally turns creatures to stone as it spreads throughout the land from the Silent Woods. This form of death is one from which there is no return.

Ori can’t really fight the decay in the same way they fight the corruption. It doesn’t turn creatures into monsters as pretty much anything that suffers from it dies. There are no decay-based enemies or attacks that inflict decay because, in the context of the game, decay is equivalent to absolute and inescapable death. There is precisely one exception to that rule – the main antagonist of the sequel, the owl Shriek.

Another Terrifying Owl

Much like Kuro in the first game, Shriek haunts Ori through much of their adventure in Niwen. This is largely where the similarities end as Shriek is leagues different to Kuro in her motivations and her ultimate fate.

Where Kuro was a sympathetic villain who was motivated by love for her children, Shriek has never known love. She was born right in the middle of the decay to parents who had already succumbed to it. This led to her forming a bony exoskeleton that gave her a monstrous appearance and forced her to find different ways of traversing the world, such as by using her wings as giant legs. She attempted to connect with other owls, only to be fiercely rejected and sent back to the decay, where she stewed in bitterness and hatred for years.

Balance of Life and Death

In case it wasn’t already apparent, the balance that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is concerned with is that between life and death. While Nibel suffered from darkness overtaking the light, Niwen suffers as death overcomes life. In much the same way as the first game, both forces are suggested to be necessary parts of the greater whole, with life feeding into death which subsequently feeds into life again.

It’s a story of rebirth, about how all that lives eventually gives rise to new life, even as it fades away. This is why the decay is so dangerous – it turns creatures to stone, cutting them off from any hope of changing or growing and passing on pieces of themselves to the life that comes after them. It’s also what makes Shriek such a tragic villain as she proves incapable of accepting that balance, choosing instead to embrace the decay which ultimately leads to her own death.

A New Spirit Tree

The ending of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is bittersweet. Ori, in order to save Niwen and to save their friend Ku, who died by Shriek’s talons earlier, gives up their own life to become a new Spirit Tree for the forest. This breathes new life into the land and brings Ku back, but Ori is gone. While some part of them remains in the form of the Spirit Tree, it’s not Ori anymore.

This is ultimately what the game is about. It isn’t suggesting that life must always triumph over death, but instead that the two are necessary elements of a balanced world. Death is unavoidable and will always be present – but so too will rebirth, giving way to new life.

Further Reading

How Ori and the Will of the Wisps Blends Art and Music to Perfection | Inverse

Ori and the Will of the Wisps expands on near perfection | Polygon

Bringing Ori and the Will of the Wisps to Life — An Interview With Composer Gareth Coker | OnlySP

Hopeful Legacies: An Analysis of Breath of the Wild

Despite its colorful style and vivacious characters, the latest game in the Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, is a surprisingly morose and somber title. It takes place in a ruined Hyrule where Link and Zelda lost their last fight against Ganon and monsters roam the world freely. Everywhere you look shows ruined homes and desolate wastes, all while melancholy music scores your adventure.

This is the post-apocalypse, Zelda style. Hope isn’t lost here, though, and the game is ultimately about the perseverance of that hope. You as Link have another chance to save the day and defeat Ganon once more.

Setting the Scene

Breath of the Wild’s story begins a hundred years in the past, when the Champions Mipha, Urbosa, Darruk, and Revali, alongside Link and Zelda, were tasked with defeating Ganon upon his imminent return. Things went very badly, as Ganon killed the four Champions, took control of their Divine Beasts and the kingdoms Guardian automatons, and defeated Link. Zelda was unable to tap into her own magical powers until the last moment, whereupon she saved Link, sent him to the Shrine of Resurrection to heal, and then went to hold Ganon at bay for as long as she could.

Zelda held Ganon for a hundred years, until in the present, Link awakes with no memory of his past. He travels the ruined land of Hyrule, searching for answers and for a way to defeat Ganon. Along the way, he frees the Divine Beasts and the spirits of their Champions from Ganon’s control, with the help of each the Champions’ successors: Mipha’s brother Sidon; Urbosa’s heir, Riku; Darruk’s descendant, Yunobo; and Revali’s successor, Teba.

Memory of a Memory

The game is very interested in the past, as shown by one of the major side quests where Link seeks out his forgotten memories of Zelda and the Champions. Everything you do is colored by the past in some way, be it retrieving an ancient helm for the Gerudo or speaking with the long-lived Zora who still remember your failure from a hundred years ago.

While hearkening back to this lost age is central to the game’s story, that’s not what it’s ultimately about. You can see this in the different roles held by the Champions and their successors. The Champions are just spirits now, having died to Ganon during the Calamity. All they can do is guide you through their Divine Beast before passing on their unique power after you defeat the piece of Ganon that killed them. Their successors, on the other hand, take an active role in aiding Link as they physically transport you, protect you, or fling themselves at the Divine Beasts for you.

The Future Builds on the Past

The successors are not clones of the Champions. Teba lacks Revali’s arrogance, Riju lacks Urbosa’s boldness, Yunobo lacks Darruk’s bravado, and Sidon is leagues more enthusiastic than the reserved Mipha. In some ways, they’ve learned from those who came before and in others they’ve elected to put their own spin on things. The Champions, for their part, recognize that their moment has long since passed that once they do what they can to help defeat Ganon, it will be time to move on.

This marks a significant departure from the attitudes held a hundred years ago. At that time, the kingdom’s plan was to use the Divine Beasts and the Guardians to defeat Ganon, with the Champions, Link, and Zelda being central figures but never in any real danger. This failed, as it was the exact same strategy used to contain Ganon a thousand years prior and he was now ready for it. Because Hyrule did not build on the past and instead tried to simply repeat it, failure was inevitable.

Second Chances

This is not the case in the present day. Having learned from the mistakes made during the Calamity, the Champions and Link are more capable than before and perfectly able to defeat Ganon. Zelda, too, is more competent as her sealing power is fully unlocked and she proves instrumental in stopping Ganon.

Breath of the Wild proves to be a game about these sorts of second chances. We don’t always get to save the world, and if we do it isn’t always in the way we imagine. All we can do is leave a legacy for those who come after us and hope that they’ll be willing to rise to the challenge.

Further Reading

Mechanics as Storytelling: Breath of the Wild‘s Weapons | Overthinking Games

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Uncertain Futures: An Analysis of The Last Campfire

**SPOILER WARNING**

Indie games about dealing with difficult mental problems are hardly anything new (see Rime, Journey, Gris, and Celeste, just to name a few), and joining their ranks is relaxing puzzler The Last Campfire. This adorable little game sees players exploring a beautiful world filled with people to help and challenges to overcome. It’s a fairly quiet title that released without much fanfare, contrasting the last title from Hello Games, No Man’s Sky.

The Last Campfire differentiates itself from the games mentioned earlier in both its gameplay and its story. This isn’t a tale about processing your grief like in Rime, nor is it about learning how to deal with anxiety like Celeste. Instead, The Last Campfire is much more interested in what happens after you’ve come to such realizations – and where you go from there.

A Helping Hand

The Last Campfire focuses on Ember, a small creature who finds themselves lost in a mysterious world. As they explore, they encounter Forlorn – embers like them who turned to stone as they gave up hope. Ember can help pull them out of their despair, which is represented by solving a puzzle that seems to take place inside the Forlorn’s head. This awakens the Forlorn and later they can be found at the area’s campfire.

Along the way, Ember meets the Forest King, a massive birdlike creature who tries to prevent all the embers from moving on to the eponymous last campfire. It’s later revealed that this King is just an elaborate contraption being controlled by the Wanderer, an ember who appears occasionally in the distance. The Wanderer laments that there is nothing after the final campfire, that this place is all there is, and then turns Forlorn, prompting Ember to help them. Afterwards, Ember, the Wanderer, and all the embers you helped travel to the Last Campfire together.

Into the Unknown

It wouldn’t be out of place to say that The Last Campfire is a metaphor for death. The world the embers inhabit is strange and could be called a limbo or purgatory of sorts. The Wanderer’s statements certainly support this hypothesis as well given that they talk about how there is nothing else after the last campfire and how they created the Forest King in order to keep others safe from that fate.

It’s certainly possible to read this game as a story about accepting one’s own mortality, though that doesn’t seem to be everything that the game is talking about. Delving a little bit deeper into the characters and the dialogue reveals that the theme of moving on is applied much more broadly than simply to symbolize death. Through its systems and dialogue, we can understand The Last Campfire as a game about moving past trauma and re-entering the world.

Let’s Go Camping

Each of the Forlorn who you help has a different reason for turning Forlorn – maybe they left their friends behind or were abandoned themselves, or perhaps they got caught up in anxiety or self-doubt. The problems these embers face are broad and varied as each of them have their own experiences and their own problems to overcome in order to move on. You even encounter Forlorn who reject your help altogether as they – for whatever reason – simply aren’t ready to move on yet.

The embers you do help wind up at the campfires, where they sit and talk about their experiences. It’s not a stretch to liken this sort of setting to group therapy – different people facing different challenges who nonetheless come together to support one another. You are effectively creating a space for these embers where they can be comfortable to share their stories and their difficulties with others, which in turn can help them move forward.

The End of the Road

What’s very telling about the game’s themes is that it refers to the fires where the embers gather as campfires. Camping is, by its nature, transitory. At the end of the trip, you pack up your tent, put out the fire, and go home. It isn’t a place you stay forever but rather a place you visit until you’re ready to return to the world.

The Last Campfire likens the groups of embers supporting each other to sitting around a campfire. They know that they will have to leave eventually but for the moment are happy to sit around the fire, talking and listening. This mirrors the path of recovering from trauma as you must take the time you need to process what you’re feeling, but the end goal is still to rejoin the world when you’re ready. It may be scary and uncertain – as the Wanderer demonstrates, it may even feel like there’s nothing left after that final campfire – but remaining where you are is not a solution. The journey can be long and it can be difficult, with many bumps and setbacks along the way, but you will be ready one day.

A New Day

These themes are somewhat simplified in The Last Campfire but they are certainly present. It’s a game that could easily be played by children and as such it doesn’t touch on the darker and more intense traumas that many people go through. What it does do is provide a framework for handling such things as it teaches that it’s okay to not be ready to move on, even as it encourages us to seek out help and support. Whatever our path to recovery may be, The Last Campfire tells us to keep at it, even when we can’t always see what’s ahead.

It’s a fascinating take in this genre of indie games dealing with mental issues. So many titles deal with the specific challenges themselves such as depression or grief or anxiety, but rarely do they touch on what happens afterwards. It can be frightening to imagine yourself returning to the world and it can feel like you’re abandoning your support system by doing so, but The Last Campfire ends on a hopeful note – it’s okay to move forward, so long as we move forward together.

Further Reading

With The Last Campfire, Hello Games is exploring a future beyond No Man’s Sky | GamesRadar+

Chasing the dream of four people in a room | Eurogamer

Hello Games’ Sean Murray on the studio’s next No Man’s Sky-sized game | Polygon

Ascension and Legacy: An Analysis of Dishonored 2

**SPOILER WARNING**

The Dishonored games are about sneaking your way past enemies using supernatural abilities – or, alternatively, aggressively fighting enemies with supernatural abilities. Both approaches are equally valid, especially in the second installment of the series. While certain achievements and endings can only be obtained through one method or the other, the gameplay itself encourages both styles and sets up opportunities for both lethal and nonlethal action.

Because of this open-ended design, finding the meaning behind the Dishonored games can pose a bit of a challenge as so much of the story is dependent on player choice. Therefore, this analysis will focus on immutable elements – things that can’t be changed or altered while playing. Gameplay is still a factor, though the events and stories that arise from it will be given less weight. This is the approach we’re taking as we talk about the themes behind the second title in the series, Dishonored 2.

The Isle of Serkonos

The focus of the second game in the Dishonored series is Emily Kaldwin, daughter of Jessamine Kaldwin and Empress of the Isles. Her storyline is the canonical experience and the game is tailored around her seeing the isle of Serkonos for the first time, as opposed to her father Corvo who would be returning home. The game opens with Emily being deposed in a coup led by the witch Delilah and the Duke of Serkonos. This leads to her escaping the royal palace and allying herself with Meagan Foster, a sea captain who ferries her to the south where she searches for answers and ultimately discovers the circumstances leading to her downfall – as well as a means to restore herself. She then returns north to Dunwall and takes back her throne.

When it comes to gameplay, Dishonored 2 is a very vertical game – much more so than its predecessor. Levels are structured in a way that makes full use of the traversal abilities (Far Reach for Emily, Blink for Corvo) and are packed with hidden secrets that can only be found by exploring the world. The maps are full of tall buildings housing multiple rooms, with treasures or objectives often found at their peaks. Having the high ground is also advantageous when encountering enemies, as you can avoid detection or drop down on unsuspecting foes. In this way, Dishonored 2 routinely incentivizes players to climb upwards in an attempt to achieve as high a position as possible.

Echoes of the Past

That element of ascension is just as key to the gameplay of Dishonored 2 as it is to the story. Most characters you encounter – especially the targets – are seeking to ascend to some greater level. In particular, they seek to ascend into the future from some troubled or fraught past. We see this in Alexandria Hypatia, whose work to uplift the miners of Karanaca stems directly from the historic injustices inflicted upon them in the name of production. We see it again in Kirin Jindosh, who seeks to elevate his work on the Clockwork Soldier to new heights by using the genius of Anton Sokolov (a scientist of the previous generation and an ally from the previous game). We see it especially in the game’s main antagonist, Delilah, who has risen from her life of squalor and misery to become a powerful witch and, now seeks to rise even further.

These characters who wish to move beyond their pasts are typically the antagonists of their levels, as they need to be eliminated in order for you to move further into the story. Part of their villainy stems from the ways they treat the past. Jindosh sees it as merely a stepping stone in his own ambitions and several notes can be found in his mansion showing that he views Sokolov as ultimately disposable. Byrne and Paolo of the Dust District see the historic grievances and discord in Serkonos as fuel for their ambitions. Neither of them really care about helping the people rise up the world – just their own desires to rise.

The Doctor and the Madman

However, there are two targets whose haunted pasts can be handled in much more constructive ways. Alexandria Hypatia is suffering due to the imperfect serum meant to remedy the miners’ ails, which she tested on herself. This twisted and corrupted her into the assassin Grim Alex, though by exploring the level and digging through the old labs, you can help her recover. Aramis Stilton is another example. When you first encounter him, he’s been driven mad by exposure to the Void. His level is driven entirely by the past, as you are given temporary access to a timepiece that allows you to jump backwards into an older version of the mansion. There, you can prevent him from peering into the Void and give him the opportunity to reckon with his attachments to the Duke, leading to him becoming an ally in the present.

These two characters are ones you can help deal with their pasts in healthier ways. Rather than trying to forget about it or move beyond it, they need to confront it. Hypatia needs to deal with her failure to create an effective serum, and Stilton needs to question his alliance with the Duke, which is based on nothing but his feelings for the man’s father. Your presence can uniquely help them accomplish these breakthroughs in ways that it can’t with the rest of the targets can’t. Jindosh isn’t going to give up his ambitions, Byrne and Paolo won’t stop seeking power, and even the Duke is forever in the shadow of his late father.

Ascending from the Past

Dishonored 2 is a game about rising from your past to become something more. The game ends with Emily doing just that as she confronts the question about Delilah’s heritage and status as rightful Empress. She learns that while the past shapes us, it cannot be allowed to define us. The validity of Delilah’s claim doesn’t matter because the past is not a place that Emily wants to live in. She instead chooses to move forward, and ultimately ascends to the throne both by birthright and by the right she earned from confronting the past.

Further Reading

Harvey Smith on the Independent Heart of ‘Dishonored 2’ | Inverse

An interview with Harvey Smith | Engadget

Understanding Art: An Analysis of The Witness

The Witness is a difficult game to parse meaning from. It doesn’t offer any conventional storytelling, nor does it provide direct assistance in figuring out the basic mechanics of the world. On top of that, there is no discernable narrative to follow and a playthrough tends to be driven more by curiosity and determination than engagement with a plot. This isn’t to say that the apparent absence of a storyline doesn’t mean The Witness doesn’t have anything to say. It just means that it’s going to take a bit more speculation and hypothesizing to reach a place of understanding. It may be intentional, then, that this seems to be exactly what the systems in the game encourage.

Welcome to the Island

A brief explanation of The Witness’s gameplay would call it a puzzle game where you draw lines through mazes, completing them to unlock new mazes. These mazes will occasionally have added rules, such as colored dots that must be separated by your line or Tetris blocks that must be formed by your solution. The puzzles begin simply and then ramp up in difficulty, adding new twists, challenges, and even combining mechanics. Gameplay would effectively be the same if it were just a series of screens and menus. That is not the case here as the mazes are instead located on a mysterious island full of stone statues depicting people going about their lives. Accessing the mazes requires navigating the landscape and physically moving from place to place. Putting the puzzles in a physical area also lets the game include environmental elements to the mazes, such as rock formations that must be traced around or actual hedge mazes that contain solutions.

The island also lends itself to some organic storytelling, the sort that doesn’t require voice acting or dialogue to be conveyed. Exploring the space reveals an artists’ haven, full of locations seemingly dedicated to constructing aesthetic works. These range from simple sculpture or paintings to massive projects that span entire regions of the game world. The puzzles don’t specifically engage with the artistic endeavors on display, but progressing through areas and solving the mazes will lead you on a tour of everything the island has to offer.

World of Puzzles

One more feature that The Witness can include with its physical world are puzzles within the environment itself. These landscape mazes exist as features of the world, formed by the sun glinting off of a structure or the shape made by gaps in buildings when viewed at a certain angle. They can be difficult to notice and aren’t necessary to complete the game, but spotting them makes for a terrific moment of revelation and wonder.

To summarize, The Witness is a puzzle game about solving mazes with various rules that takes place on an island built to display art while also concealing secret puzzles in the landscape itself. That about covers the game’s basic experience, though there are secrets and mysteries abound. The game even has a rather strange hidden ending if you unlock all of the environmental mazes. Still, the question of what all of this says about the game’s ultimate meaning remains unanswered.

Witnessing Art

One possible explanation is that the game is about art. The island is full of the stuff, after all, so it’s a logical conclusion to say that The Witness is saying something about how we interact with it. Going a bit deeper, we might even say that The Witness is about understanding art. The puzzles that fill the island all have set rules, none of which are explained to the player in tutorials or popups. Instead, you figure them out through engagement. You’re asked not just to observe the world around you, but to understand it.

A level deeper still takes us to the environmental puzzles, which ask us to look at the world around us in the same way we look at the puzzles that were built for us. We need to understand the world a very specific way to solve these conundrums. One could even say that we need to view the landscape around us the same way that the designer of these mazes might view it. At this point, the game shifts from talking about how we understand art to how an artist understands art. We’re asked to step into the shoes of the one who creates – to not just comprehend their works, but to try and comprehend them and the way they look at their surroundings.

The game is ultimately about redefining what its title means. A witness is one who sees or observes something, but The Witness is more than that. To be a witness in this game is to both see and understand. To witness the art that surrounds you is to comprehend not just that it exists, but how and why it exists as well. These ideas form the basis of artistic analysis and criticism, and the game suggests it’s something that everyone who plays it is capable of.

Further Reading

‘The Witness’ Creator Jonathan Blow on Science, Language and Reality | TIME

The Creators of The Witness on How They Made a 100-Hour Puzzle Game | The Verge

The Witness: How Jonathan Blow Rejected Game Design Rules to Make a Masterpiece | The Guardian

Knowledge and Understanding: An Analysis of Prey (2017)

**SPOILER WARNING**

Prey (the 2017 reboot) begins with the player character, Morgan Yu, waking up in your apartment, receiving a message from your brother, and proceeding to the TranStar building where you undergo some tests. At the end of the examination, an alien disguised as a coffee mug kills the examiner and you black out – only to wake up back in your apartment, at the start of the day once more. It soon becomes clear that you’ve been stuck in a simulation and are actually on Talos I, a space station where the terrifying Typhon aliens have broken containment and are killing everyone in sight.

Neuromods, Typhon, and Yu

As you progress through the station, the most valuable items you’ll find are neuromods, which function as the game’s skill points. These are physical objects that take up space in your inventory and can even be fabricated if you know the recipe. In the story, neuromods are items derived from Typhon that imbue one with knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise possess. They can confer anything from combat instinct to musical talent. Learning more about the Typhon even lets you use them to gain supernatural abilities like telekinesis and shapeshifting.

The Typhon from which the neuromods are created are equally as central to the game, as they make up most of the enemies you’ll face. As you progress, you’ll learn more about these tentacle-y monsters – in particular, you’ll discover that they lack mirror neurons, which are responsible for developing empathy (the real world science behind this is dubious, but it’s central to Prey’s story). This means that they are literally incapable of seeing other beings as worthy of consideration, which makes it that much easier for them to kill any humans they come across.

The final key element in the story is the player character themselves, Morgan Yu. Morgan is an executive in TranStar Industries, but more importantly, they volunteered as a test subject before the game’s start. This sees them repeatedly having their memories wiped by removing neuromods (which resets your mind to when the mods were installed) and going through a basic testing process to examine the effects of the new Typhon abilities. This repeated memory reset leads to the existence of several different versions of Morgan Yu who can be encountered throughout Talos I. There’s January, an operator robot with Morgan’s personality who guides you through the station; December, another operator with Morgan’s personality who encourages you to simply abandon everything; and the various recordings and notes throughout the world that paint different pictures of Morgan Yu. Ultimately, your true identity is in flux and poses an open question for most of the game.

The Price of Knowledge

These three elements – the neuromods, the Typhon, and Morgan’s memory – contribute to the game’s main themes of knowledge and understanding. It is through them that the game examines the effect that knowledge has on the human mind, especially when pair with empathy or a lack thereof. The way the story unfolds and the choices players make each contribute to this greater dynamic.

The neuromods are quite literally pure knowledge. They allow Morgan to download new information and abilities directly into their brain and most playthroughs will see dozens of mods being spent. This poses a difficult ethical dilemma, however, as you eventually learn that neuromods are made from Typhon, which can only reproduce by killing humans. Morgan Yu is complicit in this crime from their executive role and their use of neuromods, especially if the player continues to use them after discovering this truth. This one piece of information re-contextualizes the whole story and makes you question your engagement with the game’s mechanics – are you still the hero when using a technology built on corpses?

Knowledge Without Empathy

If the neuromods embody the price of knowledge, then the Typhon are the consequences of knowledge without understanding. They are the origin of the neuromods and are also completely without empathy as they attack and kill with ease. We later learn that they feed on consciousness, which is perhaps the best example of intelligence without understanding in the game. They consume other minds to grow, something that they’re capable of because they don’t see these minds as minds. They don’t understand that human consciousness is anything other than knowledge for them to absorb as they can’t see personality or emotion – just the parts that are of use to them.

Morgan Yu’s backstory also explores the effects of knowledge without empathy. It is gradually revealed that your character used to be a cold-hearted executive with little regard for the human cost of their experiments prior to the start of the game. This is seen most clearly in the side quest where you seek out information about Mikayla Ilyushin’s father, who was executed on Talos I by a past version of Morgan Yu. Given that you’re supposed to be the protagonist of this story, it’s difficult to learn that in truth, you’re something of a villain. How you react to this knowledge – as well as other knowledge gained throughout the game – will define your character.

Forbidden Knowledge

All of this taken together – the bitter truth about neuromods, the psychopathy of the Typhon, and the challenges of Morgan’s past – tell us that some knowledge is not meant to be known. The human drive to innovate and discover led the residents of Talos I to the Typhon; the Typhon drive to consume and absorb knowledge led them to break containment. The pursuit of knowledge in this game leads only to ruin. In fact, the presence of the Apex Typhon at the end of the story raises the question of if some knowledge can ever truly be understood as this final monster is basically a Lovecraftian horror.

What’s very interesting is the way that the game’s true ending handles these themes of knowledge and understanding. The final scene reveals that everything you experienced was a simulation being given to a human-Typhon hybrid to test your empathy. It turns out that the Typhon have invaded Earth and Alex Yu – Morgan’s brother from the game – is banking on combining human empathy with Typhon powers to save the world. While this might seem to contradict the entire theme of the game as Alex is pursuing some dangerous knowledge in his hybrid experiments, it actually fits rather well. At this point, it’s clear Alex has learned from his mistakes on Talis I. He’s tempering his quest for knowledge with empathy and understanding. His questions for the hybrid aren’t centered on learning more about it from a scientific standpoint, but whether or not it shares the compassion and empathy that he possesses. Knowledge is still a risk, of course, but Alex has put in the work to understand it. It isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of time and work, but in the end, it is worth the effort.

Further Reading

Prey interview: Arkane talks about its ‘open space station game’ | Fenix Bazaar

Have You Played… Prey (2017)? | Rock Paper Shotgun

The Struggle for Freedom: An Analysis of Hollow Knight

**SPOILER WARNING**

The topic of free will is always an interesting issue for a video game to tackle. The most famous example of games exploring the subject is the Bioshock franchise – notably Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Each of these titles discussed the nature of freedom in a space where players were constrained, their actions limited. Bioshock did this by examining linearity in games, confronting players with characters who told them where to go and what to do. Infinite took a different approach as it introduced alternate universes while showing that certain events always happen regardless of players’ choices. Each of these provides a fascinating take on the nature of freedom and independent action in their own right.

Hollow Knight behaves differently in its examination of free will. Instead of asking you to consider whether or not protagonist the Knight has freedom, it makes an assumption from the beginning that they do not. Despite the open ended and exploratory nature of the game, the story itself is characterized by an expectation of service from the Knight – but it’s one that can be turned on its head, if players are willing to overcome great challenge for it. In order to understand this struggle, we first need to take a brief look at the story of Hollow Knight and its major actors. The lore of this game is rather daunting, so we’ll be covering just a short summary of the events by looking at four of the most significant figures: the Radiance, the Pale King, the Hollow Knight, and the Knight.

The Radiance, the Pale King, and the Infection

The Radiance is the secret main antagonist of the game, effectively a deity of light. She is depicted as a moth-like being who, long ago, held sway over the minds Hallownest’s bugs, bringing them together in a hive mind. This gave the bugs unity, but at the cost of any individual free will. The Pale King was a Wyrm on par with the Radiance in terms of power, and is also depicted as a being of light. Years before the events of the game, he shed his Wyrm form to take on a shape more like the bugs of Hallownest and granted them all individuality. The bugs, now with minds of their own, turned their backs on the Radiance, and she faded from the world until she existed only as a distant memory within the Dream Realm. While the Pale King’s gift may seem preferable to being a simple drone, it came with strings attached – he expected worship from Hallownest’s denizens, which he received aplenty. Many references to his deific status can be found in the game, from the King’s Idols to the residents of the White Palace.

After a time, the Radiance attempted to be remembered by the citizens of Hallownest. She began to encroach on the bugs’ minds, which clashed with the Pale King’s individuality. This led to the Infection, a disease that spread throughout the kingdom and brought it to the brink of ruin. The Pale King used the ancient force of Void, a natural enemy to the Radiance and light, to create a Vessel capable of containing her. Vessels were developed by combining his own offspring with the Void, and in time he created the Hollow Knight – a completely empty being, without free will. This Vessel became the Hollow Knight and the Pale King somehow forced the Radiance into them, intending for her to be trapped there as there was no mind to bend.

The Flawed Vessel

The Hollow Knight was, however, flawed. The Radiance was able to find purchase in their mind, which allowed the Infection to continue spreading, ultimately destroying Hallownest. The game’s story begins after these events, as the Radiance is on the verge of breaking free, and the Knight arrives in the kingdom. The Knight is one of the Pale King’s children, a discarded Vessel who was thought to be imperfect. They are now the last hope to contain the Radiance and preserve the remains of Hallownest.

The Will of the King

When examining the story of Hollow Knight, one might be able to accurately say that neither the Radiance nor the Pale King are heroic figures. They each seek to exert a form of control over the residents of Hallownest – the Radiance through a hive mind, the Pale King through worship. In fact, it wasn’t specifically the Radiance who caused the Infection, but rather her influence reacting poorly to the individuality that the Pale King gifted to the bugs. Their status as beings of light connects them to the theme of power and dominance that runs throughout the story.

The player character – the Knight – is a Vessel built to contain the Radiance. If players just progress through the game, without seeking out any secrets, then they will embody that purpose. The story ends with the Knight defeating the Hollow Knight and absorbing the Radiance themselves, fulfilling the Pale King’s directive. This is a rather bleak ending – but it’s not the only one.

Another Choice

The secret ending sees the Knight overcome a wide array of obstacles, many of which are hidden away in the world. There are several hidden boss fights, a tough-as-nails platforming sequence, and some lore to parse through in order to access a fight with the Radiance herself. This is definitely not what the Pale King had in mind, and it is a true challenge – the battle is one of the hardest in the game, with multiple stages where attacking is nigh impossible and the Radiance deals twice as much damage as regular foes.

It is in these two endings that the question of free will arises. The first asks you to follow the path laid out for you and enact your role just as your creator envisioned it – and if you do pursue this ending, it can be argued that the Knight is a Perfect Vessel, one with no will of their own. The second ending, however, lets you choose for yourself to save the kingdom, and it punishes you for it. Everything about the second ending – the boss fights, the platforming challenges, the Radiance herself – is unusually difficult, forcing you to endure harsh punishment as you push forward. In this game, freedom is not natural to the Knight. It’s something that they need to strive for.

With so many games that treat their discussions about free will as rhetorical questions that are almost always answered in the negative, Hollow Knight poses a different dilemma. Freedom is possible, it tells us – but it’s not free. The only way we can really, truly be free is if we’re willing to fight for it – and to not give up until it’s ours.

Further Reading

Cosmic Indifference: An Analysis of Outer Wilds

**SPOILER WARNING**

Outer Wilds is a very different game, with a very different play experience. Its handcrafted solar system and beautiful landscapes are not quite like anything else as they shift and move around the player without any sort of input. This is a world that doesn’t revolve around the main character, something that separates it from every other major title and lends itself very nicely to the themes of exploration, isolation, discovery, and the absence of control.

Time Loops and Space Adventures

To summarize briefly, Outer Wilds puts you in the role of a Hearthian alien who’s part of their people’s space program. You set out early on to explore the world around you, from your home planet of Timber Hearth to the treacherous oceans of Giant’s Deep to the dubious physics of the Hourglass Twins. After a little less than half an hour of this, the sun explodes in a brilliant supernova and you’re sent back in time to the beginning of the day. This time loop forms the core mystery of the game, and while players never pick up new abilities or upgrades, they do learn valuable information that guides them through the game.

The first major difference between Outer Wilds is that the world you explore doesn’t care about you. Most game worlds tell a story – whether intentionally or no – with the systems that player characters use to shape their surroundings, be it through shooting enemies or jumping platforms. Outer Wilds’s world is dramatically different, as very often you’ll find that you can’t affect your surroundings in any meaningful way, but your surroundings can easily affect you. The most obvious examples of this phenomenon are on the planets Brittle Hollow and the Hourglass Twins. Brittle Hollow is literally hollow, with a black hole at its center that will slowly consume the surface, creating a landscape dotted with holes and pitfalls. The Hourglass Twins are actually two planets – Ash Twin and Ember Twin – and true to their name, the gravitational force between them draws sand from Ash and towards Ember, revealing structures on the former while concealing tunnels on the latter as time passes. These events happen regardless of what you as the player character do, which contributes to the overall feeling of helplessness cultivated by the game.

The Eye of the Universe

The actual story also builds on this theme of powerlessness. It’s centered around the mysterious Nomai, ancient aliens who lived in your solar system many thousands of years ago. Exploring the world reveals fragments of their knowledge and their quest for something called the Eye of the Universe. As part of their endeavor to locate the Eye, they created the technology responsible for the time loop, intending to randomly launch a probe on each iteration which would eventually find the Eye simply by sheer luck. The only problem was that in order to power the time loop, they would have to trigger a supernova, and so they built the Sun Station in order to perform this task.

At this point in the story, the problem seems clear. The Nomai were obviously messing with forces beyond their control, and this led to their demise and the player’s current predicament. The solution, then, is to board the Sun Station and find a way to stop it. It’s a logical conclusion to reach, and we’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to expect this sort of narrative. We see something going wrong, and we know that by the end of the game, we’ll be the ones who fix it and save the day.

Helpless in the Face of Calamity

Outer Wilds flips that expectation on its head. Once you actually reach the Sun Station, you learn that the Nomai never managed to make it work. It is incapable of causing a supernova, which means that the death of your sun isn’t some malfunction or mishap – it’s just the end of its natural lifespan, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In fact, the entire universe is dying out, which you can see on your map as dozens of stars burst and go dark in the distance. All you can do in the face of this inevitable calamity is finish what the Nomai started and find the Eye of the Universe. Even then, this doesn’t save anyone, not even yourself.

Ultimately, Outer Wilds is a game that confronts you with cosmic indifference. The world around you doesn’t care about you, and will go on regardless of what you do. The universe is dying and there isn’t anything that can save it. Even the Eye of the Universe, when you finally reach it, initially presents as a cold, dark, and inhospitable place. It’s a terrifying idea, and it’s one that the game forces you to reckon with.

Hope in the Void

Despite this rather depressing subject matter, Outer Wilds still manages to feel hopeful and optimistic at the end. Throughout the game, a question is repeated – what would happen if the Eye of the Universe were to be witnessed by a conscious observer? This is a scientific query, as the Eye is a quantum anomaly, one that has no defined state of being. It’s also a thematic question – what do you see when you confront cosmic indifference? The final section of the game answers this as after tumbling through a vortex and entering the Eye, the player finds themselves in a forest, sitting at a campfire. Music can be heard on in the trees, and exploring deeper reveals friends and allies who you met throughout your journey, who join you by the fire. You can even find one of the Nomai, if you took the time to figure out the mysteries of the Quantum Moon. At this point, at the very end of everything, in the face of the uncaring universe, your character cares. They care enough that when they observe the Eye, what manifests are versions of their friends.

This is what matters when confronted with a world we can’t control. Outer Wilds seems to say that we have to accept this cosmic indifference, because we can’t change it. What we can do is hold onto those we care about, because even if there’s no greater purpose or meaning behind it, they matter to us – and that’s more than enough.

Further Reading