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The Development of Morality in Gaming

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I think we can all agree that video games have developed significantly over the past decade, not just in regards to graphics, gameplay, and re-playability but also in another way, a way we didn’t quite expect. When video games first began they were made simply for fun. During a game of Pong, for example, players never wondered about why the ball was bouncing across the screen, or how this situation would fit into the context of a story; you just played it to kill time and to see the highest score you could get. Over the years, however, games have developed from a simplistic form of entertainment into sometimes tear-jerking and mind-bending cinematic masterpieces.

A lot of development nowadays seems to focus on topics relating to increasing player interactivity. While many may think I’m referring to a first-person perspective or extra immersion using virtual reality with the Oculus Rift, what I’m actually referring to is the inclusion of morality and choice within games. This is done not only by adding in different paths that a player can go down (depending on the choices they make), but also by blurring the lines of those paths. In the indie game Undertale, there are three paths a player can take: Pacifist, Mixed, and Genocide. In Genocide, you actively hunt down and kill every NPC in order to become stronger, while with Mixed, you leave at least one other NPC alive. In Pacifist, you instead find creative alternate solutions to work around battles and befriend the characters as opposed to just ruthlessly killing them. This is a unique mechanic, as the game’s characters will remember your previous choices and will hold you accountable for them, even if you’re starting a new game. By using this tactic, the player feels a little less like they’re playing a game and more as if they are stepping into an actual world. As a result, this creates a certain magic to the game, and strengthens the player’s immersion into the game’s world.

Undertale

Now, while Undertale is an incredible game, I do have to point out the ease of knowing which path is the good path to take. The design will constantly discourage the player from killing other characters, and will actually urge you to never dispatch anyone. While that is a lovely idea, it is easier said than done. Upon your first encounter, other characters will fight you, and some enemies will do everything in their power to make you snap. In games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, however, most of the conflict seen within the game doesn’t arise from characters battling walkers (aka zombies) but rather from the issues that arise among the group. These issues are relating to a more ambiguous morality, and how much of your humanity you’re willing to abandon for the sake of survival.

When you and your team find a stranger who tried to raid your food supply, what do you do? If you let him go, will he run away or come back with reinforcements to steal your wares, or leave your group in peace? If you kill him, will it protect your team, or provoke his group into attacking yours in an act of vengeance? It’s difficult to know the right answer, as the game won’t hold your hand and tell you. In fact, there’s hardly ever a right choice. A limitation of multiple choice games is that too many varying choices make it difficult for the game to work. Every different split leads to a new ending, and if you constantly have new branching paths, it will become too much for the developers. For a standalone game such as Until Dawn, there can be multiple endings where you can save or let everyone die depending on what you do. Every choice there matters. However, a game developing into a series or an episodic game series may not be able to do this.

untildawn

While this may be due to budget limitations for the developers, it could also be considered a limitation that is turned into an advantage. A similar technique was used by the developers of Silent Hill. The game’s developers discovered that the PlayStation couldn’t handle the number of polygons and frames to show things far off in the distance without them awkwardly clipping in and out. To solve this, the developers added a thick mist to the game, so as to hide these flaws. Although this was done as a simple cover-up job, the addition of the mist made the game all the more terrifying, since players never knew what lurked in the thick fog until it was coming straight for them. This is a key example as to how the designers used the game’s limitations to their advantage. Now, how does this apply to The Walking Dead you ask? Well, in regards to the choices you make, the outcomes are usually quite narrow, tending to lead to almost the exact same ending.

Some people may see this as a cheap trick done by lazy developers so that they don’t have to do any extra work, but as a game design student, I can’t agree. If every choice you make veers off into new choices, then the game would become too large to make. The idea that the people for whom you go to extreme lengths to protect will die regardless as to how much you suffer to save them is a tragic and genius element. Despite your best efforts to protect your team, you can never go through the game and keep everyone alive. A part of you feels helpless, as your comrades are picked off one by one, taken either by an enemy, an accident, or some sort of gruesome untimely death. A part of you wants to just do what you can to survive, but if it means forcing you to betray or leave behind your friends, can you really bear to do so?

What surprised me most of all is the discourse among fans that follows. It seems that every time a new episode of the The Walking Dead game is released, the fans erupt into arguing over which character the player should have sided with, writing long, detailed posts about who chose what option on their play-through, and why. It isn’t even so much the gameplay or cracking zombies skulls open with makeshift weapons that we enjoy in these types of games — it’s the quarrels and moral dilemmas that emerge and make us really think. These sort of reactions don’t only stem from games such as The Walking Dead, but also titles like Dishonoured, The Last of Us, and Bioshock.

The development of morality and choice is a significant one in regards to gaming, especially when you look back and remember that the medium was started as a simple gimmick to kill time. For a while now, the growth of morality within games has had a profound impact on the games industry and in the world-building of games themselves. I look forward to seeing how developers will use this mechanic in the future, and where this new trend will lead both gamers and game designers alike.

Katie Soden is a games design student/author who has a tendency to cry over cartoon characters and watch cat videos as opposed to doing important things, like eating or sleeping or keeping on track with assignments. Despite her tendency to forget how to function as a human being and general laziness she still occasionally updates her blog and makes an attempt at having an online presence.

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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child

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Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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Games

‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.

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Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.

It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.

In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.

Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.

Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.

Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.

I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.

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