Nier: Automata is a good game after one trip through its world. It’s a great game after three. Creator Yoko Taro takes the player’s familiarity with science fiction conceits and uses them to lure him or her into a sense of complacency, then continually builds and complicates his themes and his world until it’s hard to know which way is up anymore. The result is mesmerizing and completely unlike any game released this year.
The setting is the far-future. Humanity has abandoned the planet Earth entirely, leaving behind a race of androids created in their image. These creations are at constant war with the “machines,” another race of sentient robots sent by an alien race to invade Earth. As android unit 2B, your role is to fight back the machine menace so that humanity can have its planet back.
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It’s helpful to know going in that Alien: Covenant is more of a Prometheus sequel than it is an Alien film. Despite an ad campaign that emphasizes the infamous xenomorph alien and a return to the franchise’s roots, director Ridley Scott is far more interested in the questions he raised in 2012’s controversial Alien prequel. This should come as no surprise for anybody who’s been keeping up with Ridley, who declared the original alien creature “done. Cooked” in 2014. He’s been envisioning a sequel to Prometheus for some time, and didn’t come around to re-introducing the xenomorph until fairly recently.
Given Scott’s hesitancy to fall back on the iconic beast, Alien: Covenant is noteworthy for how well it bridges the gap between Prometheus and Alien. The film takes some bold creative risks in merging the two stories, but ultimately does so in a way that the xenomorph is not only compatible, but integral to the story being told. It’s the last line in an increasingly long line of creations and creators, all with complex relationships to those that made them and those that they will create.
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Adaptations have to toe a fine line with their audiences. On the one hand, one must consider the newcomers first. If the adaptation fails to tell a compelling story on its own merits, then it doesn’t matter how true to the original it is. On the other hand, if an adaptation strays too far from the essence of what made the source material appealing, it risks alienating its base. The first episode of American Gods is a gorgeous, at times fascinating interpretation of the book. It moves briskly, features incredible cinematography, and certainly entertains. And yet, it shows signs of being both too literal in its portrayal of the book, and not quite true enough to what made it interesting in the first place.
A great example comes early in the episode, when Shadow, the protagonist, is turned away by an airport employee. He flashes back to a conversation he had in prison. A fellow inmate tells him about how he once got out, but after feeling disrespected by an airport attendant, he lost control and ended up back in prison. Shadow remarks that perhaps the lesson here is that prison culture encourages a type of behavior which, when applied to the real world, is instead harmful. “No,” the inmate insists. The real lesson is “don’t piss off those bitches in airports.”
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Speaking purely in terms of entertainment, the first few months of 2017 have been spectacular. Peak TV has not let up one bit, with promising newcomers like Legion joining continuing successes like The Americans. Movies, especially more “popular” releases like Get Out, Logan, John Wick 2, and Lego Batman, have been exceedingly great.. But both still pale in comparison to the gaming landscape, which has seen a historically excellent slate of games, right in the middle of a period notorious for being a slow.
I already wrote about my love for Resident Evil 7, a game that is beginning to get left behind in the larger cultural conversation. February saw the release of Horizon: Zero Dawn, one of the greatest Playstation exclusives in Sony’s history and an enormous step forward for developer Guerrilla Games. But even that title, a massive Ubisoft-esque open world action game, was shortly eclipsed by the hype surrounding Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that was universally hailed as an instant classic and one of the very best games ever made a full week before it even released.
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When you break it down, there are two major competing ideologies when it comes to modern game design. On the one hand, you have your open-world, player-driven experiences. In these titles, developers craft expansive sandboxes of potential experiences and give the player a number of ways to interact with their environment. Games like The Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto, Far Cry, and Assassin’s Creed give players unique stories and memories, things to laugh about or share with friends. These “high expression titles,” as Warren Spector once called them, are often considered the more forward-thinking, or pure, examples of game design.
But their successes do not mean that we should discount the strengths of games that eschew freedom in pursuit of more explicitly crafted experiences. Looking at the output of Naughty Dog, one of the most renowned developers, we can see how powerful these directed experiences can be. The Last of Us tells an incredible story, perhaps the best we’ve seen in the industry, by tying the game’s progression and gameplay scenarios to the feelings of tension or relief inherent in the story beats.
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