Storytelling with Systems: Breath of the Wild’s Open World

The open world game mechanic is a system I’ve talked about before on this blog, though in that instance it was about how Skyrim uses its world to weave a mythic tale. I’ve also talked about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – specifically about its weapons and how they reflect the broken state of Hyrule. This article will be combining those two ideas to discuss how Breath of the Wild uses its open world to tell its story.

What’s unique about Breath of the Wild‘s open world is that, like Skyrim, the vast freedom afforded by the system doesn’t break the game’s narrative. No matter how you play the game, it will never feel as though you’re making Link avoid his responsibilities to the kingdom by having him hunt down Koroks or help someone find love. This is truly remarkable in a game that is simply bursting with optional objectives and quests, so let’s dive into just how this open world avoids the narrative traps that accompany the mechanic and just what sort of story is being told.

The Castle in the Distance

First, let’s talk about how Breath of the Wild avoids narrative trap that so often plagues open world games – the feeling that you’re delaying the very important main quest in order to complete pointless side objectives. No matter where you travel in Hyrule, your primary goal will always be present in some way because you’ll almost always be able to see the great structure in the center of the map – Hyrule Castle. This large fortress is positioned such that the rest of the open world radiates out from it. That plus the constant swarm of malice energy surrounding it make it clear that this is your final goal, the location of your ultimate showdown with Calamity Ganon.

In this way, the game ensures that Link’s purpose in the story is never far from your mind. It’s hard to ignore a great big castle in the middle of an open field, which means that you’ll always have that reminder somewhere in the back of your mind that you need to stop Ganon at some point. Since Link’s character can be pretty easily interpreted as a stand in for the player, we can also say that the castle is always present in his mind as well.

Preparing for the Fight

Breath of the Wild doesn’t just expect players to remember Hyrule Castle due to its distinctive design (although that is certainly part of it). The game also sears the location into your mind with the sharp difficulty spike in enemies and areas that you encounter when approaching it. Multiple Guardians, turrets, Moblins, and a Lynel will ensure that any players attempting to enter the castle early on will be in for a violent surprise.

Difficulty is an excellent way of making players remember areas – it encourages you to return later once you’ve powered up your character and are better equipped to handle the challenges. In this way, the game recontextualizes pretty much every side quest in the game. What would be pointless busy work in another title, existing only to pad playtime, is instead a part of Link’s journey as he regains his strength. You can’t delay working on the game’s primary goal of defeating Calamity Ganon because literally everything you do contributes in some way, whether it means learning a new recipe to buff Link’s combat skills or gaining a new heart container from completing shrines. No matter how seemingly inconsequential, it’s all a part of the game’s larger story.

The Fall of Hyrule

Speaking of the larger story, let’s talk about just that! Breath of the Wild takes place 100 years after Calamity Ganon wreaked devastation across Hyrule. Princess Zelda and her knight, Link, were supposed to keep him at bay with the aid of the Champions and the Divine Beasts, but Ganon took control of the Divine Beasts, Link was badly injured, and Zelda’s power didn’t awaken until too late. Zelda chose to use her power to keep Ganon contained while Link recuperated in the Shrine of Resurrection, a process which stripped him of all memories and brings us to the start of the game.

Link awakes to a Hyrule in ruins as Calamity Ganon prepares to overpower Zelda and escape, freeing him to reign chaos upon the world once again. He has no knowledge of this vast, strange world he finds himself in – and, depending on how you play the game, he may remain relatively ignorant of the world. You’re advised to free the Divine Beasts but you don’t need to do so. In fact, the only thing that the game requires you to do in order to complete it is fight and defeat Calamity Ganon. Whether you do that having explored every corner of Hyrule and recalled all your memories or having just made a beeline to the castle after leaving the Great Plateau is entirely up to you.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

This unique story structure wouldn’t be possible without Breath of the Wild‘s open world. The absolute freedom provided by the land of Hyrule allows for Link’s journey to be distinct for each player. Some versions of Link will find the Master Sword, complete every shrine, finish each Divine Beast, and collect every memory before beating Ganon. Others may only finish as many shrines as they need to in order to not die, or focus on expanding their inventory with Korok seeds, or even miss a Divine Beast or two. The story rolls with it and the ending of the game makes sense no matter what path you’ve chosen.

The story told by the open world here is ultimately one about heroism and courage. By giving players endless opportunities to grow stronger and reveal more about the world and characters around them, the world allows for infinite possible versions of Link to exist. No matter what path you take, though, Link’s journey still takes him to Hyrule Castle and he still overcomes Calamity Ganon. It doesn’t matter how you get there, the open world tells us – just that you do, and that you never give up no matter how many setbacks you face.

Further Reading

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

Eiji Aonouma On The New Look And Why Nintendo Wasn’t Inspired By Skyrim | Game Informer

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

Killing the Past, Looking to the Future: Hitman 3 Review

Io Interactive’s most recent three Hitman games have all been outstanding in their own ways. The first, released way back in 2016, introduced us to the games’ more episodic format and elusive targets. Hitman 2 fleshed out the mechanics and design of its predecessor while boasting more intricate, dynamic levels. Finally, Hitman 3 stands as the capstone of what Io has been calling the “World of Assassination” trilogy.

While not without issues (including launch week server problems, Epic Games Store exclusivity, and the Hitman 2 import controversy), Hitman 3 has largely had a strong initial showing. The missions are elegantly designed and the settings are each evocative in their own ways. That’s not even mentioning one of the most interesting elements of the game – it’s surprisingly engaging story. Without further ado, let’s get into what makes Hitman 3 the perfect finale to Agent 47’s adventure.

Gameplay: 4/5

There won’t be many surprises here for seasoned Hitman fans, even if your first experience to the series was the soft reboot in 2016. Io’s signature level design is back, making for intricately crafted levels that wind around on themselves in mazes that are a delight to unravel. Making exploration even more interesting is the presence of unlockable shortcuts – paths through levels that are initially locked from one side until you open them, after which they remain accessible in each subsequent playthrough.

Aside from the shortcuts and a few extra features like a camera that lets you scan intel items and keycode locks, Hitman 3 plays a lot like its predecessors – which is by no means a bad thing. Hitman and Hitman 2 were a blast to play and the third installment is just as fun. While it’s not going to be everyone’s jam, for those who enjoy the feeling of unwinding a puzzle box of a map one step at a time, there’s really nothing better.

Originality: 3/5

Hitman 3 doesn’t make too many changes to the main mechanics from its previous titles, which is probably a smart move. The few new mechanics introduced are little iffy if we’re being honest, with the camera often feeling a little unnecessary while the keycode locks can easily send players to the internet looking for quick answers. They’re interesting ideas on paper, but neither of them are explored to their fullest extent here.

What does work quite well is the shortcut mechanic. Hitman games love their complex maps, often with hidden paths through them to allow experienced players efficient passage from one side of the level to the other. However, players may never find these hidden paths, or may stumble upon them very early, before really seeing the full extent of what the mission has to offer. Shortcuts provide an answer to that problem – you won’t just happen across one because it’ll be locked when you first encounter it, and once you do open it, the location will be cemented in memory because you actually had to take action to open it. It’s a very nice addition that neatly complements Hitman 3’s exploratory gameplay.

Accessibility: 2/5

For a game released in early 2021, it’s a little surprising to see the lack of accessibility options in Hitman 3. This is especially notable as 2020 was a banner year for accessibility in gaming, but Io seems to have dropped the ball a bit in this area. There are all the baseline accessibility features – subtitles, control remapping, and difficulty modes – but the absences speak much, much louder here.

There doesn’t seem to be any colorblind mode in Hitman 3’s settings, nor can certain quicktime sequences where you need to button mash or hit buttons in quick succession be turned off. The subtitles also consist of large blocks of text that may be difficult to read quickly. These issues could always be fixed in future patches as Io has been known to release monthly updates for previous Hitman games, but it remains to be seen if accessibility options will be a part of them.

Look: 5/5

If we’re being honest, Hitman 3 is not the most graphically impressive game of all time. That being said, I think you’d be hard pressed to say that it doesn’t just look good. From the opening level in Dubai where the sun streams in onto gold gilt to the splendor of the vineyard in Mendoza, it’s all very pretty and shows that Io’s art department knows what they’re doing.

The level that stood out in particular to me personally was Chongqing, a Chinese city that houses a secret facility below and a makeshift laboratory above. Something about the rain-soaked, neon-lit streets just stood out as especially beautiful, giving the level a sort of gritty noir feel that made one of the most visually interesting places in the game.

Story: 4/5

Hitman and Hitman 2 certainly had stories, but not like Hitman 3. The previous two titles centered on the power cabal known as Providence, and the conclusion finally tasks you with dismantling it once and for all. It’s a story that goes to some very grim places, ones that I didn’t personally expect. The game raises a series of questions, such as to what degree is 47 responsible for his actions, how strong is his relationship with his handler, Diana, and most importantly – what happens when the job is done?

It’s not The Last of Us, but it’s really quite good for what it is. There were a few twists I didn’t see coming, some moments that made me consider the ethical implications of 47’s actions, and a conclusion that made for a satisfying end to the trilogy. All in all, it was an impactful narrative that made a fascinating game that much more rewarding.

In Conclusion

The last chapter in Agent 47’s story is a thrill to play and a delight to experience. It covers unexpected narrative beats, provides closure to the series, and lets you blow targets up with explosive rubber ducks. While it’s accessibility could be better, it remains a strong game overall and one that I can absolutely recommend.

Final Tally: 18/25

Mechanics as Storytelling: Celeste’s Difficulty

**SPOILER WARNING**

Death is inevitable – a statement that’s just as true in life as it is in video games. It’s especially relevant when discussing tough-as-nails titles like Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, each with their dark atmospheres where repeated deaths create feelings of hopelessness and loss. It’s a similar yet distinct feeling found in 2018’s Celeste, a game with a much lighter and more hopeful design and art style than those previously mentioned, yet sharing their agonizing difficulty.

Surprisingly, all three of these games use their difficulties to elicit the same feeling from their players, which is one of triumph and accomplishment once those difficulties have been overcome. However, while Dark Souls does this to depict a lone wanderer’s struggle against a bleak world and Hollow Knight examines the nature of freedom, Celeste’s difficulty exists for a different purpose, one intimately tied to its story.

Climbing a Mountain Isn’t Easy

First, let’s examine the nature of Celeste’s difficulty and how it differs from those previously mentioned titles. Celeste is a platformer, meaning that the game’s main challenge is figuring out the right sequence of moves to execute in order to move from one piece of solid ground to the next. Aiding you is a handy dash ability, which lets you cover large distances easily. Hindering you are moving platforms, spring boards, narrow paths, spikes, spikes, and yes more spikes. Celeste ramps up the challenge steadily, but it won’t be long before you find yourself dying several times trying to complete a tricky sequence.

The game is a little more forgiving that Hollow Knight or Dark Souls, though. There’s practically no loading screen when respawning after death and every single chamber has a checkpoint at its start, meaning that death is never too great of a setback as it is in those other games. This also leads to certain rooms having more challenge than others, as larger areas ask you to perform more moves seamlessly before reaching the next checkpoint. By the end, you’ll be asked to jump and dash through vast swathes of the screen with little to no checkpoints in between.

Madeline

That’s the difficulty – now let’s talk about the story. Celeste is about Madeline, a young woman who wants to climb the eponymous mountain. We’re led to understand from her dialogue with other characters that she needs to do this because she’s feeling stuck in her life and she wants a win – something noteworthy that will prove to herself that she’s capable. Her journey is as much a mental one as it is physical.

Celeste Mountain isn’t an ordinary mountain, though. Madeline’s internal struggles are made real and tangible as her doubts, fears, and anxieties take physical form as a Part of Her manifests as a dark copy that tries to hinder her progress (we’ll call this Part of Her ‘Badeline’ from here on out). Haunted temples, unstable ghosts, and ethereal dream sequences are also all a part of her experience as she makes her way slowly but surely up the mountain.

Inside Out

Madeline’s struggle is both physical and emotional – it’s difficult climbing Celeste Mountain, and it’s difficult dealing with her many insecurities and self-doubt surrounding her ability to accomplish her goal. Just as Badeline was made real by the mountain, embodying all of Madeline’s anxiety and fear, so too does the challenging climb itself reflect her own emotional journey. Celeste Mountain is a place where the internal becomes external so it makes sense that Madeline’s journey to grow as a person would be made physical.

We know that Madeline has struggled a lot with her mental health. During a conversation around a campfire, she reveals that she’s dealt with depression and panic attacks in her past (and in her present) and that it’s not been easy getting to where she is. In this light, the climb up the mountain acts as a symbol of her mental journey – challenging and tough, often to the point of overwhelming her, but one that is ultimately worth taking.

The Road Ahead

Celeste’s difficulty can be frustrating at times. The game even has an entire mode called Assist to aid those who find they can’t enjoy the experience due to its difficulty. However, as the game itself reminds you when selecting that mode, the challenge is an intrinsic part of the Celeste story. It’s not just about you as a player overcoming the many, many hardships of the mountain, but about Madeline doing so as well. Reaching the summit is about more than just beating a tough series of levels, it’s about the struggles one faces with their own mental health and the better future that awaits after making that long and arduous journey.

Further Reading

In praise of Celeste | Eurogamer

Celeste stresses me out, and that calms me down | Polygon

City of Locked Doors and Lost Opportunity: A Cyberpunk 2077 Review

Cyberpunk 2077 is out and it’s certainly something. Following a years-long saga of marketing that courted controversy just as often as it promised groundbreaking innovations, the result is a thoroughly mediocre game from CD Projekt Red, the studio behind the Witcher series. The game itself is bursting with potential, from its three pronged tutorial system to the rich history of its chosen setting and genre to the casting of Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, legendary anti-establishment rockerboy.

For all its promises, Cyberpunk 2077 also had a bevy of red flags that should have tipped us off about the final product. A developer that rescinded its word on obligatory crunch, transphobic marketing that missed the mark on what cyberpunk is all about, and early reports of a bug-filled game all point to a final product that is painfully unremarkable. Let’s break it down.

Gameplay: 3/5

The gameplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty alright, all things considered. Disregarding the occasional glitch that messes with your carefully planned strategy, it generally feels like a fun and satisfying shooter. The guns have solid weight and a good punch to their shots, katanas are exhilarating to swing about, and the leveling system is a fresh take on typical RPG perks and skills.

Where the game starts to fall apart is in content. While the core systems of Cyberpunk are entertaining, there ultimately isn’t that much to do in the game. There are the main missions, of course, which see the most variety of combat, stealth, and driving. The side missions also introduce interesting plots and expand the world, but don’t add too much to the gameplay. Then there are the gigs and the reported crimes, which flood your map screen. These are small encounters that offer extremely repetitive chunks of gameplay, most of which boil down to going to a location and then either stealing some MacGuffin or killing some target. The gameplay is still satisfying, but after a hundred same-y encounters, it starts to get a tad boring.

There’s also the problem of persistence. While a few minor choices in missions do allow you to affect their outcomes, these often aren’t very meaningful in the long run. In contrast to CD Projekt Red’s other games, your decisions are often quite limited, with very little impact on the game’s world. Combine that with a setting that feels static and unchanging, even as you complete quests that would surely tip the balance of power in Night City, and you get a series of storylines and missions that lack weight.

Originality: 2/5

This game is not derivative, which is to say that it isn’t a wholesale copy from any other game. That’s good, but it isn’t really innovating in any areas, either. Its central gameplay mechanics are the combat and the RPG elements, both of which are largely uninspired. Nowhere do we see anything fresh or new.

While the Skyrim style skill leveling mechanic is interesting and a handful of perks and cyberware do stand out from the rest, all in all it really just feels as though these systems amount to little more than a numbers game. All your upgrades just increase or decrease certain percentages – damage, critical chance, reload speed, stamina regeneration, etc. – often in miniscule ways that lack a sense of impact. The game simply doesn’t do anything new or fresh, adding next to nothing to the gaming experience you could get from a number of other titles.

Accessibility: 1/5

Yes, that’s a score of one. Cyberpunk 2077 earns it through a series of missteps that are all the more bizarre in what was a banner year for accessibility in games. The most obvious (and most publicized) oversight is, of course, the braindance sequence, which includes a series of flashing lights that caused photosensitive players to have seizures. While this has since been addressed, it points to a game that isn’t very interested in making accommodations for its players.

The easiest accessibility setting, subtitles, are of course present, though they often display huge blocks of text on the screen with little time to read them. The game has colorblind modes (though other titles have done colorblind modes better) and control remapping is present but limited. Particularly irritating is the inability to fully remap actions which require the player to double tap a button, such as the dodge action.

All of these accessibility issues exist on top of a game that takes little time to properly explain its core systems. The difference between leveling and street cred, the way perks, skills, and attributes work, and the confusing world of crafting all contribute to a game that doesn’t communicate its general gameplay very effectively. This alone isn’t a huge issue (The Witcher 3 had largely the same problem, after all), but when taken together with the game’s other accessibility problems, it creates a game that needlessly locks out a large chunk of its potential audience.

Look: 3/5

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: yes, Cyberpunk 2077 is graphically impressive (so long as you’re not playing on a console from the previous generation). This is practically a given. CD Projekt Red made a show of the scale and scope of Night City, the large crowds that wandered its streets, and the detailed ray tracing that would allow for incredible sights and vistas. Look is about more than just graphics though, and if we’re being honest Cyberpunk 2077 really isn’t that visually distinctive.

There are moments where Cyberpunk’s unique aesthetic breaks through, such as during a parade through Japantown or during a handful of braindance sequences. While certain areas have their own distinct visual style such as the deserts of the Badlands or the polished sheen of Corpo Plaza, it’s all just different brands of dystopia that we’ve seen before in other media. The look of Cyberpunk is nothing special, nothing unique, and ultimately no amount of style can compensate for a lack of substance.

Story: 2/5

To get the most pressing matter out of the way first: Cyberpunk 2077 is not a cyberpunk story. It has everything that technically places it in that genre, like body modification, a combination of high technology with low life, and rebellion against corporate authority, but none of the spirit. The game is closer to an action noir title with its bombastic fight scenes and tale of one simple job gone terribly wrong. It’s got the cyberpunk aesthetic to be sure, but the story is never about cyberpunk’s driving themes – what it means to be human, how body modification changes us, and how to express independence in a world full of control.

The story is less about the struggle between human and a machine than it is about the struggle between a person and another, separate person – V and Johnny Silverhand. They’re linked by technology, but roughly the same tale could easily be told without any of the futuristic bells and whistles included in the game. The main questline is admittedly engaging and Keanu Reeves brings a rough charm to Silverhand. That doesn’t change the fact that the game is merely paying lip service to the cyberpunk genre while going its own thematic route.

Then there’s the world in which the game takes place – Night City. Here we see a setting that operates almost entirely on modern trends, despite existing in the year 2077. Social norms and systems are largely the same, just heightened. Advertising is overtly sexual with an even greater focus on women’s bodies than we see today, sex work and gambling are pushed to the fringes of society, and while language may have changed a bit it still features roughly the same slang and terminology with a few minor additions. Night City isn’t the future – it’s just an exaggerated version of today.

Now this wouldn’t usually be a problem – stories about the future are almost always meant to talk to us about the present. The problem is that Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t seem to be saying anything about these topics. The explicit advertising, the omnipresent sex, the homeless vet sitting next to neon signs – all of it seems to exist to shock the player, to make us marvel at how depraved and excessive this dystopic world has become. It engages in no critical reflection on the issues it raises and it has little if anything to say about them.

In Conclusion

Cyberpunk 2077 is ultimately a game that failed in a number of ways. It failed to meet the incredible expectations set by its marketing buzz and hyped community. It failed its setting by telling a story largely uncritical and uncaring of the many, many themes prevalent in cyberpunk media. It failed in accessibility as it has done very little to address severe issues such as the seizure inducing sequences of the game and at times seems to actively work to exclude marginalized identities at times. While not a complete trainwreck of a game, it’s not exactly good either.

There exists a strong temptation to excuse all of Cyberpunk 2077’s flaws. Those who remember The Witcher games fondly and appreciate CD Projekt Red’s generally ethical stance on consumer relations may be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and stick with the game as patches, free DLCs, and major content releases come later in in the game’s life cycle. As it stands, however, it’s hard to see the latest title from the Polish company as anything other than a disappointment.

Final Tally: 11/25

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

Mechanics as Storytelling: Hades’s Persistent Story

It’s difficult to pick a mechanic from Supergiant’s Hades that isn’t already part of the game’s story. Pretty much everything that could be considered overly gamey is explained through dialogue and lore. The permanent upgrades from the Mirror of Night are a result of Zagreus becoming more attuned to the Underworld and himself. The achievements and quests on the Fated List are prophecies from the Three Fates, who reward you for fulfilling their predictions. Even your weapons naturally get stronger when given Titan Blood because they were originally used against the Titans.

Since every single mechanic in the game already seems to have a role within the story, let’s focus on exactly that – the story. It’s one of Hades’s major contributions to its genre as it manages to convey a coherent plot within the roguelike structure. In fact, the story and the roguelike mechanics are inextricable from one another as plot points and character development are one of the things that remain persistent throughout runs. Let’s examine the ways in which Hades uses its persistent story to – well, tell a story.

Roguelikes and Storylines

Historically, roguelikes haven’t featured much in the way of narratives. Sure, they have characters and lore much like many other games, but roguelikes tend to put gameplay front and center above anything else. Titles like Spelunky or Nuclear Throne each pop to mind as games with a lot of lore, but it’s generally only accessible to those willing to dig deep into the games (or their wikis).

Rogue Legacy is one game that explained its story more coherently than most. In it, you play as your descendants after you die – hence the Legacy part of the title. Even so, there’s still more of a focus on gameplay than persistent story as other characters like the Enchantress and the Architect don’t actually change over the years despite your repeated deaths.

Death is Inevitable

Hades handles its story a little differently. First of all, you begin each run in the House of Hades, which you are trying to escape. Whenever you die on your run, you go where all the newly dead go – right back to the House of Hades, to be processed and placed by the God of the Dead. It’s an elegant way of explaining how the roguelike system of repeated deaths works in this world as while death may be inevitable, it isn’t the end for Zagreus.

Each time you die, you’re treated to new opportunities to engage with characters around the House. You can talk you your disapproving father, Hades, your wise mentor, Achilles, your enigmatic stepmother, Nyx, or any number of other characters. Some will only show up under specific circumstances, such as Megaera who needs to be defeated in Tartarus before appearing, while others are present almost all the time Additionally, you can only speak to each character once on each escape attempt, meaning that you’ll need to leave and die again before unlocking new dialogue.

There is No Escape

With most roguelikes, beating the game is a reward in and of itself. You may be treated to a special cutscene or cool new upgrades depending on the game, but generally the prize to be won is just the satisfaction of mastering the game’s mechanics and overcoming the challenge. Some have secret endings and areas for those who have the time and skill to seek them out, but the goal is still largely the same – completing the game.

Hades shifts things bit. Here, there aren’t any secret endings to achieve. You’ll come to realize that the reason for this is because this game, unlike others in its genre, has a story with an endpoint. Escaping the Underworld is not the end of Zagreus’s journey and you’ll need to get him out several more times if you want to see the whole narrative unfold. The story becomes the goal in Hades, with each successful escape getting you closer to the true ending.

Persistence and Perseverance

The story of Hades is one of persistence. Zagreus manages to change to status quo of the world through his sheer determination and will to do so. It only makes sense that a story about persistence would be told in a persistent manner. The steady progress you make through the game, slowly unlocking more abilities and skills and weapons, is reflected in the story itself as Zagreus repeatedly makes efforts to get through to people, even those who don’t seem to want his help at first.

Ultimately, this story couldn’t have been told any other way. Persistence after death is the hallmark of the roguelike genre and the defining feature of Hades’s plot. Even after dying for the hundredth time, Zagreus will still strike out into the Underworld – and so will we, if only to see more of this incredible story.

Further Reading

The Art Of Hades | Kotaku

Meet the voice cast of Hades, including one of the dogs behind Cerberus | PC Gamer

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

Mechanics as Storytelling: Crusader Kings 3’s Stress

Modern life may be stressful, but at least it isn’t as stressful as ruling a medieval kingdom where your scheming courtiers are as likely to stab you in the back as they are to sleep with your spouse. Crusader Kings 3 is a grand strategy game with RPG elements that puts in in charge of a ruling dynasty and sets you loose into the world. There is no endgame goal, no quest you must complete, and no warning when your son decides that he’d make a better king than you and slips a venomous snake into your bed.

It can seem an impossible task to pick out a certain mechanic that helps to tell a story when the game in question has no formal story to follow. A lot of the systems are relatively independent and don’t affect too many other aspects of the game, like domain limit and de jure claims. One mechanic that does stand out is the Stress system. This single element helps shape Crusader Kings 3 into a wonderful storytelling machine, helps fix one of the major problems that many RPGs face, and explores some themes of its own.

Don’t Stress the Small Stuff

What is Stress in Crusader Kings 3? Stress represents how well a character is coping mentally with their actions and with events in their life. Each character has their own Stress meter that can be filled over the course of their life. Certain events or actions give them Stress and other remove it. At certain Stress milestones, characters suffer mental breaks where they must either take on a coping mechanism that usually carries with it some penalties or suffer through it, with gives them even more Stress.

Having too much Stress also affects your character in and of itself as you can experience severe health penalties and a reduction of fertility. Suffice to say that it’s not a good thing to have Stress – and yet, it’s impossible to avoid. Even if you steer clear of any action or decision that would gain you Stress, you’ll still get it when close family members die and from other events outside of your control. The system is built so that Stress can only be managed and never circumvented entirely.

The Measure of a Man

Pretty much every choice you can make in Crusader Kings 3 has the potential to cause Stress. Most of the time, however, that won’t be the case as the actions that cause your character to gain Stress are determined by their traits. For example, a Just ruler will gain Stress if they plot to have someone assassinated, but a Sadistic one won’t. These traits are one of the RPG elements included in the game and the Stress system is how it bypasses the issue of players acting out of character.

Many RPGs suffer from this problem – a character is meant to act in a certain way for the sake of the story, but players make choices and decisions that contradict the narrative (such as an evil character restoring water to the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3). Crusader Kings 3 benefits from not having a specific narrative to follow, but Stress encourages players to roleplay their rulers instead of just using the same strategy for every character. By having the penalties be rather small on their own with long term consequences down the line, the game ensures that you never feel like you’re forbidden from doing something while still ensuring that you remember to stay in character whenever possible.

Rigors of Parenthood

One way to get around the Stress system is to ensure that you always educate your heirs yourself, which will let you dictate which traits they wind up with. This can be a strategic gameplay move as it ensures you’ll be able to maintain an overarching strategy across rulers, but it also plays into the story of a dynasty fostering the next generation of monarchs.

Raising kids also comes with some inherent Stresses. Each child you take on as a ward will have a number of events in their youth where they gain a trait that will dictate what actions give them Stress. As a child’s guardian, you can change that trait to one of two other options (for example, a dynasty all about charismatic diplomacy probably wouldn’t want a Shy heir). However, changing that trait will also gain you Stress. This ensures that you’re still balancing long term consequences against short term effects as guiding your heir towards a certain lifestyle may be best in the future but can cause you a crippling mental break in the present.

Dynamic Systems, Dynamic Stories

Ultimately, Crusader Kings 3 is about rolling with the punches and dealing with whatever challenges you face. The story told by its Stress system is by nature similarly dynamic as rather than following a scripted narrative where certain choices always give you Stress and others always remove it, the mechanic shifts based on what sort of character you’re playing. It allows the game’s story to move in interesting ways as you are well within your abilities to force your Just, Honest, and Compassionate ruler into murder schemes and prisoner executions, driving them to become overwhelmed by Stress.

Even these instances are just another storytelling opportunity. While some games are too lenient with out of character moments and others too strict, Crusader Kings 3 finds a middle ground that works perfectly for its gameplay and the stories it tells. Stress is part of your story, whether you like it or not, and it will play a huge role in your dynasty’s legend.

Further Reading

A Medieval Storytelling Machine: Crusader Kings 3 Review | Overthinking Games

Crusader Kings 3 is more fun when you play it like The Sims | Polygon

Crusader Kings 3 interview: Putting players in control | Shacknews

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