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The Top 10 Video Game Tearjerkers

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I distinctly recall the first time I ever saw anyone cry because of a video game. It was back in the mid-’90s, and during a game of Marble Madness on the Mega Drive (Genesis, to you folk in the colonies), my friend’s little sister decided she wanted to play Ecco the Dolphin, and just ripped his cart out of the console while he was in the middle of a high score run. While he generally wasn’t prone to emotional outbursts, or even basic empathy (the guy laughed when Bambi’s mum died) on this occasion, as he watched his game seize up and crash, Niagara Falls.

As gaming has evolved over the years, the ability of video games to make us feel things has grown. Where video games used to be about beating your friends in the arcade, they’re now a way of absorbing stories, and escaping to fantastical new worlds. Within the medium of video games, story-telling has grown stronger, the characters more well-rounded, and with player agency being something only gaming provides, the experiences, often, truly unique. Just as movies grew beyond scaring people in the theatre with a train driving towards the screen, games have grown beyond Pac-Man and Pong into a medium that can evoke joy and sadness in equal measure.

So grab a box of tissues, pop the lid off your tub of ice cream, dig out your favourite Morrissey album, and let’s count down the top ten video game tear-jerkers.

Disclaimer: It should be obvious, but there’s going to be spoilers galore in this article. Like, everywhere.

Sad ending Super Mario

Question: How did he get his shirt on?

10. Super Paper Mario

The Mario series generally isn’t known for emotional storytelling. Everyone’s favourite Italian plumber is usually too busy collecting stars, rescuing princesses, or committing genocide against the goomba people to hit us in the feels, but that’s exactly what Nintendo wanted us to think when they released Super Paper Mario for Wii. Lulling us into a false sense of security with cute graphics and compelling gameplay in which a flat, or paper, Mario has to negotiate a 3D world by flipping the perspective of the camera, this is a game which has all the hallmarks of a classic Mario game, but then throws a curve ball at the player with a surprisingly moving story.

As the game begins, a megalomaniacal villain named Count Bleck tricks Princess Peach into marrying Bowser, which according to a prophecy, will trigger events leading to the end of days. Of course, there’s only one man who can save the day, and at the behest of a butterfly-like fairy named Tippi, Mario is soon on another adventure. He brings Peach, Bowser and Luigi along for the ride and our four heroes begin battling the minions of Count Bleck, in an effort to stop the entire universe being sucked into a black hole.

As the seemingly simplistic tale of good versus evil chugs along as expected, we’re introduced to visions of two other characters named Blumiere and Timpani; lovers whose relationship was ended by Blumiere’s vile father when he banished Timpani to another realm to starve and die, alone, for no reason other than he’s not a very nice man. Eventually it’s revealed that Blumiere, not content to deal with his recent break-up like everyone else by drinking hard liquor and downloading Tinder, succumbed to his own anger and misery and became the villainous Count Bleck. Now he’s hell bent on destroying, well, everything, because if his life turns to shit then everyone else’s might as well too.

Timpani, it turns out, didn’t die at all, but was rescued by a wizard and born again as the fairy Tippi unbeknownst to Count Bleck. The two are eventually reunited at the end of the game after countless years apart, and the heroes and villains join forces to stop the universe ending calamity instigated by the former Blumiere at the beginning of the game. Alls well that ends well, and the heroes and villains go out together for a celebratory meal. Well, except for Blumiere and Timpani, who are in fact shown to be dead, and now trapped in some sort of afterlife. So that’s alright then.

sad21

9. Ether One

Ether One is a first person puzzle game in the style of PC classic Myst that explores the world of dementia using an Assassin’s Creed-esque machine to send our hero, referred to as ‘the restorer’, into the mind of an Alzheimer’s sufferer named Jean in an effort to rehabilitate her, and restore her memories. Led by a pioneering doctor named Phyllis Edmunds, we negotiate the patient’s mind, and we explore events from her past, getting to know a little about her in a dream-like state of colliding memories and eerie recollections of important events. While the obtuse puzzling and the game-breaking bugs are probably responsible for as many tears shed by gamers as the story is, the yarn crafted here by White Paper Games is well worth the price of admission.

As the player uncovers more and more about Jean’s past it’s revealed that she entered into a relationship with a man named Thomas some years ago, although thanks to her failing memory, we learn little more than that, or where Thomas is now. The restorer continues to fix the parts of Jean’s memory that have been damaged by her dementia, and as he does so, the environment becomes more and more unstable, a sign, Dr. Edmunds assures us, that the treatment is working. Just when we think we’re making some real progress, the game decides to kick the player in the plums for being silly enough to think there was any good left in this stinking world.

The twist is that the restorer isn’t actually a restorer at all, because they’re not a real thing, and neither is the machine. No, the game we’ve played up until this point has all taken place in the mind of Thomas, and Dr. Edmunds, when giving him instructions, is actually trying to get him to remember aspects of his own past. Jean was his wife, and I say was, because of course she’s dead, and her death becomes one of the first things Thomas remembers when he momentarily snaps back to reality at the game’s ending. In the words of Cypher from The Matrix, sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

MEtal Gear Ending

She looks like she’s about to burst into a killer rendition of ‘Alone’ by Heart.

8. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

It’s a testament to just how accomplished Hideo Kojima is at making video games that he can take a game as utterly ridiculous as Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and still manage to give it a genuinely emotional climax. Set in the ’60s and featuring the dad of long-time series hero, Solid Snake, as the lead character, Snake Eater is a prequel that aims to show how the events of the entire series were set into motion in the beginning. Our hero, Jack, AKA the future villain Big Boss, is sent to Russia to rescue a scientist named Sokolov that is allegedly working on some sort of super weapon. Less than an hour into the game, Jack is betrayed by his mentor, a woman named The Boss, who defects to the Soviet Union and joins the ranks of the evil Colonel Volgin, a Russian separatist who promptly detonates a nuclear bomb on his own people, eradicating all evidence of the super-weapon under construction there.

With America and Russia on the brink of World War III thanks to the Russians now believing that the nuclear attack was in fact instigated by the Americans, Jack is sent back into Russia with one goal; prove America’s innocence in this atrocity by bringing down Volgin and his uprising, and killing his teacher, friend, and now enemy, The Boss. Aided by an American double agent called EVA, Jack heads back into the Soviet Union and systematically takes down Volgin’s forces, before the man himself, and eventually catches up to The Boss to face her down in a fight to the death.

Jack wins the fierce battle against his mentor, and as she lays dying on the ground in front of him, puts her out of her misery by shooting her with her own gun. Jack and EVA head off to a log cabin to celebrate their victory with a bottle of claret and a couple of rounds of bedroom gymnastics, before Jack wakes in the morning to discover EVA gone, with only a note left to explain the situation. EVA, it turns out, was actually working for the Chinese all along, and only helped Jack to get her hands on Volgin’s private fortune. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she then drops the bombshell; The Boss never actually defected to the Soviet Union at all. It turns out that The Boss was also sent to retrieve Volgin’s private stash of money for America, but when Volgin nuked Russia, and World War III was looming, her mission required her to be killed by her own student to prove her country was innocent in the whole affair, and go down in history as one of the most hated war criminals of all time to boot. Unable to deal with his mentor being used as a scapegoat by the country she served until her last breath, Jack begins his turn to the dark side that will eventually lead him to do battle with Solid Snake.

Shadow of Colossus Ending

Some of the colossi are strangely cute.

7. Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus‘ approach to story-telling is to barely tell you a thing, and let you put the pieces together yourself mainly from what you see throughout the game. Taking up the role of a boy named Wander, the goal of Shadow of the Colossus is to revive a poor girl who has slipped into some kind of coma. How do you revive a comatose girl? Apparently, by making a deal with a sinister spirit, who claims that if you kill sixteen giant beasts known as Colossi, that will somehow get the job done.

So Wander rides off on his trusty steed named Agro to set about killing these vile beasts. Only, when he arrives at the first Colossi, he discovers that not only is it a magnificent, towering creature, but it’s also pretty friendly, showing no signs of hostility toward the player whatsoever until Wander sticks an arrow in it’s neck. The game proceeds with many of the Colossi not actually posing any threat to the player until Wander initiates the conflict, which gives the player, if they have a heart, the feeling there’s something not quite right about all this.

As each Colossi is murdered by the player, Wander becomes noticeably sicker and sicker, signifying that this probably isn’t going to end well. At the end of the game, he rides off to face the last Colossi, before succumbing to his sickness, transforming into a hideous beast, and being murdered by soldiers. Oh, and his horse falls off a cliff too. Thanks for that.

Oh jeez. I think I have something in my eye.

Oh jeez. I think I have something in my eye.

6. Persona 4

Persona 4 is generally considered a lot more upbeat than Persona 3, but there’s a couple of moments in the later portion of the game that will still have you reaching for the Kleenex. Taking on the role of a transfer student from a big city in Japan, the player moves into the country house of his uncle, Dojima, and his cousin, Nanako. As the story progresses, our nameless hero and his new-found school friends uncover a sinister mystery involving a serial killer, and must do battle with creatures from a secret world inside the television to save fellow students and friends from certain death.

Towards the end of the game, it’s revealed that our cousin Nanako has been kidnapped, and she’s the next potential victim of the serial killer. So the protagonist races to her aid, confronts the kidnapper in the TV world, kicks his ass, and brings Nanako back to reality. In a normal game that would be a pretty good ending, but in Persona 4 it’s the beginning of the worst ending in the game, as when you get back Nanako dies anyway, and the protagonist and his friends murder the kidnapper, who as it turns out, is actually innocent and not the killer at all.

Games have used the good, bad, and true ending system before, but Persona 4 handles it a little differently in that the requirements to achieve the better endings are so obtuse that almost everyone who plays the game will be lumbered with the bad ending on their first play through, before furiously Googling how to make it all better. Getting the bad ending after sixty or so hours of game is soul-crushing, as you watch a six year old girl cough and splutter her way to death in front of her widowed father. Oh, and even though you’re cousins, she calls you “Big bro” too, just to really twist the knife. Fortunately, reloading the game and making a few different choices get you a much, much, much happier conclusion to the game, but not before the bad ending has mentally scarred you forever.

Don't worry, she's just sleeping. Covered in blood and sleeping.

Don’t worry, she’s just sleeping. Covered in blood and sleeping.

5. The Last Of Us

It’s difficult to evoke an emotional response from people in the early goings of a story, because if they haven’t had a chance to become emotionally attached to the characters, any attempt to pull at the heartstrings usually fall flat. But as Pixar proved with Up, if you do it properly, you can have them blubbering inside fifteen minutes, and it’s to Naughty Dog’s credit that they managed a similar feat with the absolutely harrowing opening to the PlayStation exclusive instant classic, The Last Of Us.

As the game begins we control a young girl named Sarah, who is talking to her father, Joel, about his birthday. The writing and the performances are absolutely perfect here, with the scene giving the player a feeling that there’s a genuine warmth between these two characters in just a couple of minutes, and doing so more convincingly than some games manage in their entire running time. Of course, this isn’t a list of the most charming family moments in video games, so everything goes to hell, real fast.

Cue fungus-zombies, explosions, and sustained, abject horror. As Joel and Sarah try to escape the town as it becomes overrun by the infected, they meet a soldier who tells them to stop where they are. The soldier whispers something about one of them just being a kid to his commanding officer, and it soon becomes abundantly clear that the army isn’t taking any chances here. Despite the best efforts of Joel, Sarah is gunned down in cold blood, with Joel’s brother killing the soldier in retaliation. After the brief exchange of gunfire, there’s just enough time for Joel to watch his only daughter die in agony in his arms before the opening credits start rolling. Hello darkness, my old friend.

His eyes might just be yellow ovals, but somehow they still look sad.

His eyes might just be yellow ovals, but somehow they still look sad.

4. Final Fantasy IX

Final Fantasy IX is, on the surface, a lot more light-hearted than the other two PSone Final Fantasy games – the often angsty Final Fantasy VII, and the always angsty, Final Fantasy VIII. But what makes Final Fantasy IX such a compelling game is that beneath the cutesy character designs and the whimsical first few hours, the main story touches on some fairly meaty subjects. One such subject is existentialism, as three of the major characters, Zidane, Vivi and the flamboyant villain Kuja, have all been built, rather than born, to be used in war.

The crux of the story is that the three characters all deal with the nature of their existence in vastly different ways. Kuja loses the plot and decides that if they want a war, he’ll give them one, by basically ending the world. Zidane has a bit of a crisis towards the end of the game but is eventually talked round by his friends. And Vivi spends most of the time wondering if he, as a black mage, a tool created for war that has since gained sentience, could ever truly be alive. As the game progresses, Vivi meets other black mages that have become self-aware, living in isolation in a small village. Talking to the mages he discovers that some of their fellow villagers have previously, randomly, stopped working, and the tribe are forced to confront the harsh reality of the situation; life doesn’t go on forever, and black mages, apparently, have a fairly limited life expectancy.

As the game ends and Kuja is defeated, the party celebrates in the city of Alexandria. We see various characters from the game in many different, often amusing scenarios, as text rolls on the screen giving the player heartfelt thanks. As we learn the fates of the main characters, there’s one character we don’t see. Vivi is nowhere to be seen, and it becomes clear that the text on screen is actually a letter from Vivi thanking Zidane, with Vivi having presumably died before the ending takes place. Thanks a lot, Square Enix.

Mass Effect 3 Ending

Liara just found out how bad the ending to Mass Effect 3 is.

3. Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 broke the hearts of gamers around the world when they played it and found out that the rushed, nonsensical ending was absolute pigswill. But for all the faults of Mass Effect 3, there were some things that Bioware really nailed, and one of them was the quest-line on Tuchanka featuring everyone’s favourite Gilbert and Sullivan singing Solarian, Mordin Solus.

In order for Commander Shepard to secure an alliance with the Krogan people, an essential part of his strategy to take on the Reapers, they demand that he help them cure an illness that blights their people and stops them breeding, known as the genophage. There are numerous ways to complete this quest-line, as is usually the case with Mass Effect, but the one with the biggest gut-punch involves Shepard being given an offer by the Salarian high command; they’ve sabotaged the plan to help the Krogans as they’re scared of them breeding at an uncontrolled rate, and they want Shepard to help protect their secret.

Of course, if you’re not a bastard, Shepard tells the Krogan about the double-cross, and the Salarian doctor, Mordin Solus, agrees to defy the wishes of his own people in order to do the right thing. As the cure is ready to be dispersed into the atmosphere, lo and behold, the machine they’re going to use to spread the serum is broken, and only Mordin can fix it. It’s in a tower that’s becoming unstable rapidly, and so both Shepard and Mordin know it’s going to be a one way trip for the good doctor. They say their goodbyes, and Mordin sacrifices himself for the good of the Krogan people, and the galaxy, humming Gilbert and Sullivan to himself as the laboratory explodes around him. While some would argue that Mordin getting blown up was actually a lot kinder than the way the majority of the cast was treated in the divisive, controversial third game in the trilogy, his noble sacrifice was surely one of the most emotionally charged moments in the series to date.

Metal Gear Ending

Don’t do it, Snake.

2. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

The Metal Gear Solid series is known for being many things. It’s ridiculous, overblown, and the cut-scenes can sometimes go on a bit. From the first game in the series on the original PlayStation, to the fourth on PS3, there’s been happy times, sad times, and times that were so confusing that we weren’t really sure if they were happy or sad. But while most games in the series are generally a fairly even balance between lighthearted action and melodramatic tragedy, MGS4 is surprisingly downbeat from start to finish.

Series hero, Solid Snake, has for reasons unknown to him started aging rapidly. Even though it’s only a handful of years since his adventures in MGS2, he looks about twenty years older. Sporting an old man moustache and suffering from a bad back and a smokers cough, Snake comes out of retirement for one last job; to take out series uber-villain, Liquid Ocelot. Watching a beloved character like Snake struggle on through the game is genuinely quite upsetting, made worse by the fact that series creator Hideo Kojima had announced before release that this would be the final game starring Solid Snake, implying death could be in the cards. The feeling of bad things about to happen hangs over this game right from the opening credits.

So what happens then? Well, Snake meets his mother for the first time, and she dies about fifteen minutes later. Naomi Hunter returns from the first game, helps Snake for a bit, then dies. Otacon has fallen in love with Naomi, so he’s crying again. And again. Raiden returns, looks like he’s going to die about eight times, but somehow survives for the entire running time. It’s just one downer after another, culminating in an absolutely brutal scene where Snake has to make it through a corridor that is blasting him with microwaves. As he’s being cooked from the inside out, and crawling desperately for the door, it’s practically impossible to not feel something for the legendary hero.

Snake does make it through the microwave crawl, he fights Liquid Ocelot to the death, and then saves the day. After he’s warned by Naomi earlier in the game that his body contains a virus that will start spreading to other people within six months, Snake decides to take matters into his own hands and just blow his own head off for the good of humanity. But just as he’s about to do it, his long presumed-dead father, Big Boss, returns for a touching reunion. Oh, and then he dies about five minutes later.

Walking Dead Ending

Aren’t games supposed to be fun?

1. The Walking Dead: Season One

Few games are as relentlessly bleak as The Walking Dead by Telltale. Like the graphic novels that inspire it, the game paints a depressing picture of a post-apocalyptic world in which zombies are making a nuisance of themselves, and humanity continually screws things up in an attempt to survive. The game is played from the perspective of a convicted murderer named Lee Everett, who is being transferred to prison when the outbreak kicks off, and is freed following a zombie-related car crash.

He soon meets a young girl named Clementine who has been left with the baby-sitter while her parents are away in Savannah. Once the baby-sitter starts getting a little bit bitey and Lee has to flatten her head for her, Clem follows Lee on the road and the two strike up a genuinely touching friendship that lasts the remainder of the game. Clem has nobody as it becomes obvious very quickly via a series of answer phone messages from her mother that her parents are likely dead, and early in the game Lee discovers that his entire family too has gone the way of the dodo. The two new friends make quite a team, as Lee looks after her, and eventually, teaches her how to survive against the titular walking dead.

Given the tone of the game from the outset, it’s pretty much a given that things probably aren’t going to end well, and the game makes sure to remind you of that fact by icing characters left, right and center whenever the opportunity presents itself. Eventually, heading into the final portion of the game, the gang find themselves in Savannah, and Clem runs off alone to see if she can find her parents. Lee, not having had the heart to tell her that her parents are dead, immediately goes looking for her, but is bitten on the arm soon after.

So Lee, knowing he’s on the way out, struggles on to find Clementine, getting sicker by the second. One by one, his friends are removed from the group either by death or separation, and Lee goes on alone to rescue Clem from her predicament, before promptly collapsing in the street. As he wakes, Clementine, using her survival skills that he taught her, has managed to rescue him and drag him to safety. Only now they’re locked in a room together, and Lee hasn’t broken the news to her that he’s about to turn into a zombie and eat her if she doesn’t do something about it.

The last portion of the game makes the rest of it look like an episode of Teletubbies in comparison, as it dials the bleakness up to eleven. It’s next-level bleak. It’s too-bleak. It’s like that song from Watership Down being covered by Radiohead-bleak. It’s absolutely awful. And so Lee has to explain the situation to Clementine; he’s dying and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. And if he does die, he’s going to turn into a zombie and eat her. Predictably, she doesn’t take the news well, and her reaction is soul destroying. Ultimately, whether you decide to have Clem shoot Lee and put him out of his misery, or leave him to his zombie-fate, the results are the same; there’s not a dry eye in the house.

Games like The Walking Dead and the others mentioned here are making great strides in emotional story-telling, and they’re not alone. There’s dozens of games like Journey, Limbo, Thomas Was Alone, and more, that are doing new and exciting things when it comes to telling a story in video games. While there’s still plenty of games that are content to give you a gun and direct you toward people who need shooting in the face in order to progress (and there’s nothing wrong with that), its nice to see that we’re getting the other side of the coin too, with thought provoking, emotional experiences becoming more and more common. Oh, and if you’re wondering where Aeris is, I never liked her anyway.

This article was originally posted on www.soundonsight.org

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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‘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.

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garden story

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.

Ambient Appeal

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.

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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.

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Death Stranding

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.

Death Stranding

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.

Death Stranding

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.

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Game Reviews

‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven 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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