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A Tribute to Gaming’s Greatest Cardboard Boxes

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‘at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.’ – Albert Camus

“Listen. I’m not exaggerating when I say the success of your mission hinges on how you use that cardboard box” – Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2

Metal Gear SolidOn the deck of a huge military tanker, still breathless from a recent gunfight, the greatest spy in the world finds a wet Cardboard Box, folds it up, and slips it into his bottomless pockets. The Metal Gear Solid series spans countless tragedies. This may be the greatest of them all.

Sons of Liberty is a game based on subversion. A middle finger to expectations of heroism, and a clandestine act of fan betrayal on the part of its auteur to rival any twist in the series’ convoluted narrative. What symbol is more fitting for the flimsiness of fame and renown? What greater mascot for the effortless dismantling of a legend than a distortion of his most iconic tool? Forget Raiden. There is no insult to Snake’s memory comparable to a wet Cardboard Box. The box is Snake’s greatest superpower, and without it, the verisimilitude of Metal Gear Solid‘s universe would flatten, and crumble.

Metal Gear SolidThe Cardboard Box (which I have chosen to capitalize throughout, and will not be argued with on my decision), is significant not only because of what it represents to us, but what it represents to Snake. Both George Weidman of SuperBunnyhop, and Ashly and Anthony Burch, have wrote on Snake’s near-constant bafflement at his surroundings. Weidman points out Snake’s habit of having “conversations by asking questions within complete sentences”. Anthony Burch writes;

“Moving past the corpse, I see a surveillance camera.

I can tell it is a surveillance camera because it is a surveillance camera.

‘A surveillance camera?’ I say incredulously.

I am Solid Snake. I am the stupidest man in the world”

Snake’s cunning bamboozlement extends to plot revelations, too. You would think, after three games, the Metal Gear mechs would have lost their ability to surprise him. Yet, the franchise’s iconic soundbite (Metal Gear?!) is spoken not with heroic abandon at a confrontation with an old adversary – or knowing exhaustion at sisyphean inevitability – but shock. It’s a special kind of shock though. A tremor that shakes the paintings from the fourth wall but leaves the plaster intact. It’s into these fissures created by an ironic, almost violent dissociation between Metal Gear Solid‘s fiction and paratext, that we find our entry point as players.

Metal Gear SolidAs audience, we need Snake’s naivety, just as we need his expertise. He’s a world-weary child. Just gruff and cynical enough that the ease of button presses and emptying bullet cases correlate harmoniously. Just vacant enough to require frequent codec tutorials to explain to him how to do the one thing he’s supposed to be an expert at. It’s a paradox, yes, but where’s the drama in competence? His verbal transcriptions of MGS‘s brash punctuation marks let us know that cool and capable Snake is just enough of an idiot to accept his vulnerabilities.

But how does this man, who becomes stupefied at the sight of basic security measures at a secret military camp, feel about his Cardboard Box? Does the incongruity of his corrugated Trojan horses even occur to him? Let’s ask him…

“So” Natasha inquires, after one hell of a Wikipedia entry “What’s with the box?”

“Oh….nothing” he who exists in perpetual amazement replies, “No big deal”

But they are a big deal. Perhaps, in a universe of burly shamans and nuclear mechs, the biggest deal there is. The boxes are Snake’s superpower. The one item that allows him to transcend the boundaries of his environment and become fully autonomous. Less snake, more postmodern chameleon. One who utilizes the symbols of an industrial age to traverse its spaces unseen.

In a script where realism is stretched to breaking point, where real world organisations like DARPA and the American government are re-purposed as grand conspirators in plots involving cyborg ninjas and psychic warfare, the Cardboard Box remains our most steadfast companion. Our only truly recognizable reference point amidst the insanity of Kojima’s pastiche. Psycho Mantis reads our memory cards and vibrates our controllers. A spectral hand that reaches through the screen, but never manages to get further than objects we have already wholly associated with the game’s fictional space to begin with. Push the action button, Snake. Call Mei Ling to save your game. Mantis’s manipulations are subliminal novelty – the Cardboard Boxes are sublime comedy.

Metal Gear Solid

He is Psycho Mantis

By stretching the limits of how we accept such everyday objects to function, Metal Gear Solid imbues The Cardboard Box with a mundane absurdism to match the magical realism that infiltrates the rest of its universe. They provide Camus’ ‘lucidity’ by acting as the toe we dip into the waters of Kojima’s fiction to test its temperature. Knowing what we know about how this universe deals with the Cardboard Box, we can go on to accept whatever else it might throw our way. For all the lengths Kojima goes to draw attention to the controller, the Cardboard Boxes remain the strongest point of connection between Snake and the player.

Like Camus’ Sisyphus, we must imagine Snake happy. Curled up underneath his soggy, corrugated cube. A wry smile curling just above his stubbled chin as genetically engineered super soldiers search frantically for this fearless master of espionage. The greatest spy who ever was or will be, his pockets stuffed with cigarettes and porno mags like a teenager run wild with a fake ID, giggling to himself in a voice like rusty razor blades. Peeking out at a world that is at once sublime and mundane, realist and ridiculous, from the inside of Cardbox Box.

 

 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Death Stranding’

What makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year is how it has managed to divide gamers and critics alike.

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Death Stranding

2019 has been a banner year for gaming. With some excellent original properties making their debuts and a ton of great sequels, there’s been something for everyone and a lot of it. Still, with all of these amazing games to play, only one of them stands out as the most important game of 2019, and that’s Death Stranding.

Now, please note, I said “most important” and not “best”. Death Stranding is far from a perfect game. As my own review pointed out, Death Stranding has a lot of problems, and some of them are so egregious that they could be described as anti-fun. However, what makes the game stand out from its peers is the sheer scale and awe-inspiring hubris of its creation.

For the first (and possibly last) time, Hideo Kojima has been given a total carte blanche of creative freedom and financial resources to make whatever game he wanted. With Sony footing the bill, Death Stranding is maybe the most Kojima game ever made. Unfortunately, like some prog rockers and experimental filmmakers, Kojima could have well done with some reigning in this time around.

Death Stranding

Still, what makes Death Stranding stand out so much from the competition is that it really is almost nothing like anything you’ve ever played. The game is basically a delivery sim where you must cross an apocalyptic wasteland of America and battle a bunch of ghosts along the way. What caused America to fall, and where these ghosts came from, is still relatively unclear even after all of the overwrought explanations that punctuate the end of the game.

Of course, Death Stranding isn’t so much concerned with why and how these events came to be as it is with the experience of living in, and dealing with, them. This is the one game you’ll play this year that will balance out self-serious moral and religious philosophy with chucking literal piss bombs at ghosts and chugging Monster energy drinks.

Yes, Death Stranding has all of the classic Kojima staples. From egregious product placement to a never-ending stream of increasingly tragic backstories, all the hits are here.

Death Stranding

However, what makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year isn’t so much its utter weirdness as a AAA title but how it has divided gamers and critics alike. While some have slathered it with never-ending praise and perfect scores, others have labeled it “a very lumpy game” or “damaged goods“.

Few games, especially in the AAA space, are able to elicit such divergent responses from their audience. Fewer still are peppered with major actors like Norman Reedus and Lea Seydoux in painstakingly rendered motion capture. For these reasons and more, Death Stranding will be debated in critical circles for years to come, and if that’s not the mark of a game that stands out, then nothing is.

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