Hajime Tabata – the director of Final Fantasy XV – recently announced that Square Enix will be tinkering with the story of the game both in the short term and in the long term via free updates. Updates aren’t unheard of in 2017. Games are frequently patched on day one to fix all of the things that probably shouldn’t have been broken in the shipped product in the first place, and sometimes, games are patched before they’re even released at all. I’ve played multiple games in my capacity as a reviewer that have received updates before the release date has hit – sometimes numerous updates – meant to fix problems that the developer either identified once the game went gold, or that they knew about before they shipped it and decided to just sort out down the road. Then once the game reaches the public eye, reaction to the title might prompt further updates from the developer to fix bugs, mess around with balancing issues, or even add in new features at the behest of the community.
The software that ships on a disc is no longer the final version of the product, but while the fixes and updates developers traditionally apply to their games are mechanical or feature-based, the latter of which are generally devised as a method of extracting a little more profit from games that are already on the market, Square Enix is proposing a far more drastic set of updates that will significantly alter the narrative of Final Fantasy XV in order to improve it over time. This intention, while ostensibly noble in the desire to improve an already sold item for no profit in the name of what is presumably artistic integrity, is interesting, exciting, and troubling in equal measure.
At its core, the driving force behind creating a piece of art has never really changed. The artist wishes to create something, be it visual, aural, or another singular or combined form of sensory stimulation, for the purposes of evoking some kind of emotional response from the consumer. It doesn’t matter whether the words of Shakespeare are printed on parchment, a cheap paperback, or emblazoned across the side of a double-decker bus – the original artistic statement remains unmolested, and only the distribution method has been altered.
As the powers of our technology have increased exponentially over time, so too have the options afforded to artists when considering how they would like to disseminate their art amongst the populace. When the first, ancient Greek thespians began performing plays for the inhabitants of small villages, live performance was all they had. Today, acting is still performed in theatres in a method analogous to those early dramatic performances, but we also have radio plays, television mini-series’, and Michael Bay movies. Over 2,000 years ago, Aristophanes would have found it inconceivable that in the year 2017 a popular method of dramatic storytelling would be blowing things up in slow motion while Linkin Park songs play in the background but then I suppose many of us living through it today are equally dumbfounded.
Importantly, technology has given us the gift of recording entertainment for consumption in the mass market. While many will lament that listening to John Coltrane on Spotify while you’re driving to work will never compare to sitting in a smoky jazz club in New York in ’63, the fact remains that our ability to capture performances and distribute them to people who might otherwise have never been able to experience them is one of the great feats, artistically speaking, in our history. Evolving technology has allowed artists to reach more people than ever before, from recording movies to film to eventually dispersing comic books across the Internet to be downloaded to a smart phone in the blink of an eye, preserving the work of these artists in perpetuity, to be passed on to later generations long after the creator has passed on.
But for all of the advances in technology, storytelling, be it via giant CGI robots fighting while Megan Fox pouts, or old men in robes standing in a village square reciting sonnets for an audience, is philosophically the same as it always was. The village squares have been replaced with IMAX and overpriced nachos, that’s all.
Video games are a relatively new form of entertainment, and though many would still deride gaming as being bereft of artistic merit – even famed movie critic Roger Ebert once famously opined that games would never be art – the fact remains that gaming has proven itself as a viable art form in the handful of decades since Pong first appeared in arcades. People scoffed at movies back in the early days of cinema as a form of entertainment for the peasants and the plebeians; scores of poor dullards, transfixed by shiny moving pictures on a big, bright screen. Rock and pop music were similarly dismissed by critics at their inception, while classical and jazz were considered the connoisseur’s choice for aural delights. As the older critics retired, they were replaced by younger versions that had grown up enjoying these once stifled genres or art forms and as a result, movies and rock music became more popular and more respected; the dinosaurs had to die out in order for art to evolve.
Part of the reason that those largely unfamiliar with video games seem to struggle to accept or even fully understand what video games are is that the medium is wholly unlike most other forms of art that appear in mainstream culture. Books, movies, music, comics, painting, sculpture, theatre, and most other appreciated and respected art forms are entirely passive mediums, but video games are not.
It doesn’t matter how many times you watch Back to the Future, where you watch it, who with, or the size of the screen you’re watching it on. Nothing changes about the movie between viewings, and while the company you keep might make the experience altogether more enjoyable on a particular screening, or a noise outside might ruin it for you on another, the piece of art remains stoic. The same can be said for most traditional art forms. Video games, by their very nature, are entirely different because in order to meet the criteria for the definition they must include some form of interactivity, however slight that may be.
Interactivity is an odd beast because one can never truly know what another person is going to think or do. A skilled director can make sure that the story beats and emotional highs and lows of a rip-rollicking 1980s time travel adventure movie hit all of the right notes, but even the most seasoned video game director can’t anticipate when the player will accidentally walk their avatar off of a cliff. The role of the player is integral to the success of the artistic statement at the core of any video game, and it’s in this regard that gaming as an art form is relatively unique.
While many video games strive to replicate the thrills and spills of an action movie, interspersing gameplay sections between cut-scenes that elaborate on the narrative, some embrace the interactive nature of the medium to spin unique yarns that couldn’t be replicated in a passive medium. A game like BioShock, for example, couldn’t resonate to the same degree as it does were the story translated to the silver screen because the narrative of the game is so intrinsically tied to the very idea of interactivity and player agency. As a movie, BioShock would be an interesting, dystopian adventure with a little to say about the nature of morality and a distinct whiff of Ayn Rand. As a game, BioShock offers a thought-provoking commentary on the nature of control that is widely regarded as one of the shining examples of how gaming as a medium can push buttons that other art forms simply can’t touch.
Video games also differ from other forms of art because, as the most recent major entertainment medium, they’re at the forefront of technological advances in ways that other art forms haven’t yet fully embraced. Traditionally speaking, once a movie or a book or an album is released, it exists as the objectification of what the creator deemed to be their artistic vision at that moment in time. OK Computer by Radiohead sounds exactly the same today as it did back in ’97. Once the artist’s brush leaves the canvas for the final time, their painting is finished, and it will never change barring disaster, erosion, or vandalism. There are examples of artists changing their work over the years – be it the seven various cuts of Blade Runner, or the Harry Potter books being re-released with illustrations, but for the most part, once a piece of entertainment has been released, those responsible for it move on to other projects.
Video games were – before the advent of the Internet – analogous to movies, only in interactive form; once they were released to the public they were a finished article. The Internet has afforded video game developers unique opportunities as an art form. If the world created by the developer contains an error, or if a little too much action on-screen causes the game’s frame-rate to struggle, the developer can conceivably alter the code and then deploy a patch to be downloaded – automatically by today’s consoles – that will then change the experience for the user without them having to actually do anything. Between playing a video game one day to the next the title could have been changed, perhaps subtly, or sometimes overtly.
There are examples of creators trying similar ideas within different mediums. George Lucas has been routinely eviscerated by many among the Star Wars fandom for years for frequently and – let’s face it – unnecessarily changing aspects of the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas seemed determined to bring his sci-fantasy movies kicking and screaming into the modern era of cinema by adding obnoxious CGI creatures to scenes that resulted in the films looking every bit as natural as a baseball cap on a medieval statue, annoying long-time fans of the franchise in the process.
What was most important about George Lucas repeatedly altering the Star Wars movies of the ’70s and ’80s was that it became increasingly difficult to get a hold of the untouched, as released to cinema versions of those movies as VHS, DVD and eventually Blu-Ray copies tended to only include the post-tinkering versions. Lucas was, for all intents and purposes, rewriting history; he was removing his original films from mainstream, readily available circulation, and replacing them with his new artistic vision. People might have been disappointed with his changes to what are beloved movies, but few would go to the lengths of tracking down original VHS copies of the films and hooking up a VCR just to watch them for the sake of not having to deal with a few badly implemented CGI additions to what is largely the same picture as before. In effect, the new versions of Star Wars have overwritten the originals in the eyes of most.
Similarly, last year Kanye West released his latest album, The Life of Pablo, but since then he’s been systematically changing songs – tweaking mixes or in some cases adding or removing guest vocals or entire tracks – and for those listening to the record on streaming services like Spotify, the version that was first released is no longer available. For those who bought a copy of the album on compact disc the music contained within it has never changed, but in a world increasingly reliant on the Internet and streaming for their entertainment needs, whatever The Life of Pablo was upon release has been forgotten in favour of whatever version Kanye West decrees to be the most up to date one.
The Life of Pablo and Star Wars are prominent examples of evolving art; pieces of entertainment that have been refined or tarnished – depending on your perspective on the matter – by creators that have perfectionist mentalities and access to technology that allows them to fulfill their compulsive desire for improvement. But what of preservation, and of the importance of retaining the original work of art, as it was at the moment of its completion, and as it was enjoyed by people at that time. For somebody that had never seen Star Wars since 1977, reflecting on their favourite aspects of the movie with someone seeing it for the first time in 2017 would be an odd experience, as a favourite moment as enjoyed by one of the people in question might not even be present in the version that the other person watched. Case in point, my favourite track on The Life of Pablo wasn’t even on the original version released to the public.
Imagine that Leonardo Da Vinci had somehow discovered the secret to immortality, and in 2017 he decided that he didn’t like the Mona Lisa any more and he wanted to give his old painting a spruce up. That’s his prerogative as an artist. Ultimately, he created the piece, and if he wants to change it then he should be allowed to alter it as he sees fit. But what would the world lose once he had changed it? As a piece of art the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the history of our species, but in the blink of an eye it could cease to be, replaced by a painting that regardless of its eventual quality, would exist at the expense of the revered work that came before it. It’s hard to know where the balance between freedom of artistic expression and the preservation of important works of art should lie, and that’s the difficult quandary that video games face if Square Enix’s changes to Final Fantasy XV become something that other studios embrace going forward.
While the most prominent example of the refinement of video games via post-release patches is the fixing of bugs or DLC adventures sold at a premium, there are examples of a studio altering a game in order to improve the narrative before now. The most famous example of this was when Bioware changed the ending to Mass Effect 3 after the original conclusion to the trilogy resulted in heartbreak and uproar from many of the most ardent fans of the franchise. Commander Shepard’s final hurrah was widely considered to feature an ending that was at best somewhat rushed and overly brief, and at worst a confusing, cynical and anti-climactic mess. Bioware responded to the fan backlash by offering a free update to the game that didn’t change the ending of the story conceptually, but did elaborate and further explain many aspects of it, as well as offering greater closure to the story of Shepard and the rest of the prominent characters in the series.
In essence, Bioware didn’t alter the story of Mass Effect 3 in any meaningful way. What they did was alter how that story was delivered to the player in order to make it more palatable to the fanbase. Square Enix is proposing numerous updates to Final Fantasy XV going forward that seem destined to radically change the story of the game in light of what many people critical of it deemed as a somewhat disappointing narrative. In order to satiate those gamers, and for the studio to live up to the high standard expected of a game bearing the Final Fantasy name, Tabata and Square Enix want to add to the game and subtract from it. By the time they’re finished, the title will likely be a very different creature to the one that most of us played late in 2016.
As somebody who played Final Fantasy XV and largely enjoyed it, but thought that the story of the game was muddled, badly delivered, and featured numerous characters whose motivations were never really clear, I do wish that the game had shipped with a more refined narrative. But at the same time I recognize that Final Fantasy XV is, culturally, a very important game, thanks in part to the legacy of the series going back to the 1980s, and in part due to the troubled nature of its development and the weight of expectation levied upon the game because of it. Is it not important to retain what Final Fantasy XV was upon release, so people can look back and see how the story of the development of the game eventually paid off?
For those who bought a copy of the game on disc, they’ll forever have a time capsule version of Final Fantasy XV that serves as a reminder of how the game shipped in 2016. And after the updates come, all they’ll need to do is delete the game from their console, and reinstall it without patches to play the game as it was released. But in a world in which many gamers are switching to digital distribution as their method of choice for purchasing video games, any changes made to the narrative of Final Fantasy XV and delivered in patches will be automatically included in the download file of the game going forward. Effectively, for gamers who buy digital, the original version of Final Fantasy XV will cease to exist, and the new version – whether it’s better or worse than what came before – will be all that’s available.
As gamers move ever closer to fully embracing the all digital future of video gaming, this sort of post-release updating of games will, presumably, lead to many original versions of games being lost to time. We can still plug the original Final Fantasy cartridge into an NES and play it as it was intended to be played back in 1987. By the time Final Fantasy XVI or XVII hits, will physical media even exist beyond part of limited edition packages released solely for collectors? And will updates result in video games evolving over time at the expense of the version of the game that came before, with each reinvention of the title causing the previous iteration to be lost in the electronic ether?
As somebody who creates on a semi-regular basis – as a writer in various forms and as a podcaster – I can understand the regret that comes with finishing a project. I’m writing this article at this very minute, and hey, I know it’s not exactly Michelangelo putting the last lick of paint onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the final scene of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when Rufus plays that kick-ass guitar solo, but it’s a creation none the less. It’s a piece of writing that will eventually be sent to an editor who’ll pretend to read it, publish it, and then get back to watching funny dog videos on YouTube. Hours later I’ll be giving it a read over to reflect upon it – mainly to see if there’s any comments on the article being mean about me – and I’ll see a sentence that’s awkward or goes on way too long or is overly loquacious or features too many redundant non-sequiturs or there’s a fancy word used incorrectly or it’s perhaps just a little too meta for its own good, and I’ll think to myself that I could have done a better job than I did.
It’s an uneasy feeling that comes with the territory when you’re putting anything that you’ve worked on out into the public eye to be judged. You can be proud of something, perhaps even elated if you believe that the work has turned out better than you’d ever hoped it would, but you’ll rarely escape the niggling feeling that there’s something, anything, that you could have done a little differently that would have made it better. I write articles about video games and I get that feeling. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like creating Star Wars and then wishing that you’d made Greedo shoot first.
Anybody who has ever created anything, whether it’s a movie script you’ve written or a finger painting you made when you were in school, can understand that feeling, however small, however inconsequential, that you could have improved it. And so it’s easy to sympathize with the artist that revisits their work in order to refine it and get it a little closer to their artistic vision. But at what cost?
Video games are here to stay, and in thirty years time they’ll be far more respected as an art form than they are today. Video game historians will look back at the period of gaming that we’re living in with the same reverence and intrigue that many movie experts have for the early days of talkies today. Gaming is evolving, and growing, and the boundaries of the medium are forever being tested, be it by seismic changes to control like the kind being spearheaded by many Nintendo products over the years, or by challenging what the nature of a video game can be as with titles like Gone Home or BioShock.
When those historians look back at our time, it’s incredibly worrying to think that when they talk about the infamous, tortured development of Final Fantasy XV, they might not be able to lay their hands on a copy of the game as it was released, but will rather have to settle for an updated version that was finished whenever Square Enix stopped patching it. For bigger games like Final Fantasy, this might not be a huge problem as physical copies will undoubtedly survive, and copies could be made going forward. But for games released digitally, evolving art is an exciting prospect for consumers looking for titles that will improve over time, and a terrifying concern for game preservation, and the importance of art as a reminder of a time long since passed.
‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures
Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.
Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?
Setting the Scene
Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.
There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.
In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.
Rebuilding a Community
So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).
Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.
While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.
Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.
In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.
Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.
How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together
Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.
Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.
While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death.
Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.
This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s.
Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.
The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.
The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.
Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .
In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.
Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope
One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community.
Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.
‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy
Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.
With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego Games‘Woven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.
Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.
Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.
However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.
But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.
Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.
But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.
And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.
Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.
Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.
‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).
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