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Goodbye ‘Life is Strange’

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To: Before the Storm and Deck Nine

A game is designed to be played a certain way. I recently wrote in a piece about Hellblade’s sound design that:

“Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc (no not Matt LeBlanc from Friends) and Robert Zubek describe aesthetic within video games as the desired emotional response a player has to a game’s systems (MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, 2004).”

Every element needs to come together; the art style, the gameplay, the sound design, the story. In the last week, the final episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Farewell, was released. The game can only be described as ugly beauty. Before the Storm isn’t made by the developers of the original Life is Strange, it was made by Deck Nine, whose most notable projects seem to be remasters of Ratchet and Clank games. Before the Storm is a prequel to the original game, removing the first games protagonist Max, and focusing on her best friend Chloe Price. Before the Storm also removes the time travelling mechanics and soap opera drama that made the first game stand out, but keeps the muddy underdeveloped graphics and cheesy dialogue its predecessor was criticized for.

The final episode of Before the Storm, which is only available to those who bought the Deluxe Edition, strips even more from the formula. It is set even further back, is unconnected from the main story of the previous 3 episodes, and offers extremely limited decisions, which have very little effect on the plot. Yet somehow, this 40 minute chunk of Before the Storm, was the first time a video game has made me cry in 5 years.

It shouldn’t be able to achieve what it did, there is too much going against it. However Farewell signifies a developer who designed every element to push you toward a specific goal. When focusing on the aesthetics of a game, you want to move past ideas like ‘fun’ and instead consider focus points like; narrative, challenge and expression.

I know Max’s story from Life is Strange, and at the time wondered why her best friend Chloe was so hard on her for moving away for a few years. Then I played Before the Storm and saw who Chloe was, where she came from, what she’d been through. Farewell is set just a few days before Max leaves her hometown for Seattle. Max and Chloe are 13 and hanging out in Chloe’s room. They’re cleaning things up, giving the player the option to pick up objects and reminisce over their history. After finding a treasure map, they go on a hunt to find a time capsule they buried a few years earlier. Over the course of the day you see the bond Chloe and her father share, you stroll down memory lane with your best friend, and discover that she might be having a hard time at school.

All of this occurs while you decide how to tell Chloe you’re moving. It may seem mundane, but it’s a drama we can all relate to, a time when things were easier but still so complicated. You could tell her earlier on in the day, but it might ruin things. Every time you choose to delay telling her, the action seems harder, as you’re slowly unraveling more of the bond you’re about to tear apart. It wasn’t a challenge like those found in Dark Souls, but it was still a challenge I hadn’t yet worked out how to overcome. In the end I put it off too long, and before I had even realized it, the day ended in tragedy. A tragedy that I had known about since I played Life is Strange in 2015, but not actually experienced.

Everything came together in that moment. There was a montage of the next few days, there were no more dialogue options, no more choices, a beautifully chosen song (soundtrack being one of Life is Strange’s strong suits). The game ends with Chloe curled into a ball, sobbing to herself, listening to Max, listening to me, explain to her over a cassette that she was moving away. I’d spent two games with these characters. I knew what this message was going to do to Chloe, I knew where it would lead her, how things would eventually end.

I cried.

Every element was cleverly orchestrated by Deck Nine to evoke this response from me. The symbolism of taking part in such a normal day, just to realize it was the last day, a day I knew as the player was coming, but didn’t expect so soon. It was the choice to take away choices, to show me that things couldn’t and wouldn’t have been any different. The carefully chosen music, the words that I had to say over that recording, because I couldn’t decide how to say them sooner, it was all so perfect.

Yet sometimes no matter how hard you try as a developer, the player won’t feel what you want them to feel. It may seem like a 360 degree turn, but stick with me. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is designed to create a specific type of experience. You’re dropped on a map with 100 other players, forced to find weapons and items to defend yourself and remain within the circle. There are many ways to go about playing the game, but you should always have the same experience. You should expect the heart pounding sensation of survival, of relief as another player passes by without noticing you, of the fear that whenever you enter into a shootout with another player, it could be you or them. However, “The difference between games and other entertainment products (such as books, music, movies and plays) is that their consumption is relatively unpredictable (MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, 2004).”

Because PUBG is a multiplayer game, effected by servers, and reliant on users playing fairly, the developers’ intended effect may not be realized. The entire premise of survival, of equal opportunity, is broken the moment someone decides to cheat. While playing on PC, I’ve been killed by cheaters who head-shot me from virtually the opposite end of the map. The illusion is broken. There is nothing the developers can do. That was my experience with PUBG. It wasn’t what the designers intended, but because they introduced variables, such as other players, every other element was neutralized. Despite other factors, the game just isn’t fun when it feels like there is no opportunity for success or competition.

This is an issue that has plagued multiplayer games for years. Alwaysblack.com breaks down how his experience in Star Wars Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast was drastically changed from what the developers envisioned, due to one player (Bow N****r, 2004). The other player chastised him for not conforming to the in game communities ‘rules’, downloaded scripts online that enabled him to deliver overpowered, almost unblockable moves, and during the entire session constantly slung vulgar language along the lines of: “Are you really black n****r?” I don’t think the developers intended for any of that.

The point is, having all of your pieces line up together, to deliver a stand out experience, is difficult. It takes time, effort and communication among the development team to achieve this. Even then it can be undermined by outside influences like; cheaters, foul-mouthed players and glitches. That is why I must applaud Before the Storm and Farewell for achieving what they did.

Goodbye to all the racist, dim witted and nasty players of Star Wars Jedi Knight 2: Outcast. Goodbye PUBG, your cheater ridden world had so much promise. Goodbye Life is Strange. Goodbye Max. Goodbye Chloe. We’ve come so far together, but it’s time to say…

…farewell.

Feature Writer/ Reviewer for Goombastomp and founder of Quiet Stories For more info on upcoming books, podcasts, articles and video games follow me @OurQuietStories on Twitter. On a more personal note i'm a beard fanatic, calamari connoisseur and professional fat guy.

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‘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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‘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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