Monthly Archives: August 2016

Why Games Are Resurrecting the Eighties

No game understands the power of a beefy bass synthesizer better than Defragmented, released this past February. The indie-action RPG is built from the ground up on purple gradients and chilly neon. It’s Blade Runner from a top-down, shoot-’em-up perspective. You’re one man on a quest to topple a city-wide conspiracy, kicking cybernetic geeks off the street with tip of your Hailfire gun. On paper, it’s inspired by the cheesy cyberpunk VHS flicks of the Eighties, but in practice it borders on satire.

Defragmented is part of a generation of games embracing the bold, hyper-saturated, vectorized version of the Eighties that exists in our heads. There’s no official cultural nickname, but most people call it “synthwave.” It’s an aesthetic that gathered steam with the 2011 neo-noir epic Drive and the gloriously grubby 2012 video game Hotline Miami. A sleek, Reagan-less utopia, full of cliffside highways, hexagonal sunsets, and magenta video stores – it basically takes a few broad filmic touchstones and expands them into an entire aesthetic. There’s a general cognitive oversimplification the farther we get from a period of time. The Fifties and Sixties are a blur of pompadours, milkshakes, peace signs and sitars. It’s comfort food, a way to polish the past to distract us from a messy present. Thirty years later, the Eighties are getting the same treatment.

The first game to embrace the neon with a decent budget and major publisher support was 2013’s Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, an expansion to the fairly sober Ubisoft first-person shooter franchise. Blood Dragon recast Far Cry’s tropical island under a crimson sun. The very first level is a Predator homage, and the story is told through title cards you might expect from “All Your Base Are Belong To Us.” At every turn, creative director Dean Evans and his team were building an indulgent, patchwork version of their own childhood.

“The shooter genre sometimes takes itself very seriously and its attempt to delivering a dramatic narrative is sometimes at odds with its comedic gameplay reality,” he says. “[The Eighties] takes me back to a safe place. A time where my only worry was how long it took my Vic-20 computer to load or if there was enough ketchup for my chips. That decade and aesthetic still feels free and futuristic. It has this mix of comfort and optimism that’s impossible not to love.”

Evans adores this stuff, and Blood Dragon is his tribute; sewn from a childhood absorbing all the CRT-TV scanlines, darkwave, and malevolent artificial intelligence he could. But a surprising number of game developers working in that same pungent cyberpunk ennui don’t share his heritage. Defragmented writer James Johnston was born in 1993, long after the boom that brought us Pac-Man, Defender, Galaga and so many other iconic games of the era, and a solid 12 years removed from New Order’s first album. He’s not pulling from a primary source, his information is borrowed, and it makes his perspective on the decade more mythic and less tangible. In a sense, he and his team have learned to imagine the 1980s.

“The Eighties were a spectacular time, you can’t take one look at it and be like ‘okay, I get it,'” he says. “What we did is try to make Defragmented it’s own story. We still have plenty of neon, and we also have a lot of chiptune in our game, but chiptune was not an Eighties thing. I think we did a good job trying to create the new kind of Eighties.”

There’s plenty of contemporary art that reflects some authentic memories of the era – Halt and Catch Fire is a great TV show that captures the neurotic, unstylish personal computer boom. But it’s telling that so many millennials are getting inspired by an antiquity that hasn’t quite had its Grease moment yet – although Netflix’s Stranger Things certainly comes close. These kids were born into a world full of corduroy-wearing dads proselytizing about the purity of Woodstock and CBGB’s, but the Eighties are theirs to glamorize. Charles Blanchard designed Drift Stage, a searingly utopian arcade racer full of MIDI guitar solos and endless beaches. He’s 25, but like Johnston, found some unspoilable hipness in an era that doesn’t quite belong to him.

“The bold colors used in Drift Stage were meant to be a homage to the limited color palettes on old home computers like C64 and Amiga, which were often the first platform to revive ports of arcade racers,” he says. “It’s a very personal project that draws its inspiration from many, many sources. While I was born in 1991, I grew up watching reruns and syndicated TV shows from all eras, and the art style really reflects my personal nostalgia for that. The fact that it resonates with so many people is something that I can’t explain, but am very grateful for.”

The entertainment landscape in the Eighties was unabashed creative gold. No fear.

Most synthwave video games are coming from indie developers – small teams without the support of large publishers – and the lack of corporate involvement has kept these games remarkably thin on pastiche. Furi is an extremely difficult boss-battler with a killer soundtrack, ROOT is a tense, fully-vectorized first-person stealth adventure. Slipstream is basically a 2016 update of Outrun. Freshly minted genres are often so easily pegged. Wayfarers! Palm trees! Pinkish silhouettes! But right now creatives behind these projects all have unique, homespun takes on the same aesthetic.

It’s hard to know how long that will last. Tonally, synthwave is teetering between a kind of serenity and hamfistedness. The willfully cheeseball 2015 short film – and then Streets of Rage-inspired game – Kung Fury double-fisted the lampoon with a time-travelling Hitler and a sloppy, exceedingly obvious David Hasselhoff music video. “There’s no need to constantly wink and poke the audience to remind them about how ‘wacky’ or ‘crazy’ the Eighties were,” says Evans. “Just be true to the unbridled attitude of the time period.”

So far these game designers have avoided anything too ironic. Their love of this stuff might be strange, but it’s also genuine. No sappiness, no Hasselhoff jokes. Just a celebration of the delectable, irreplaceable vibe of a hot rod, and a highway, and an artificial sun hanging above an indigo city.

“Nostalgia is both an interesting beast and a double-edged sword. To dwell in the past can be considered negative but I don’t see why it can’t be a positive emotion, a rewarding experience and a tool to engage people,” says Evans. “The entertainment landscape in the Eighties was unabashed creative gold. No fear. It was a time that felt immune to focus groups where creators were in control of their creations without the fear of death by a thousand cuts. The summer of ’82 will never be forgotten. And let’s be honest, vectors and desert chrome are timeless wonders.”

More Informations About Arkane’s Prey Gets a Dark Sci-Fi Reset

Shown this past Thursday during the opening ceremonies of the 21st annual QuakeCon, Arkane Austin’s rebooted version of the alien-themed, 2006 game Prey looks to be a moody, freeform experience. You star as the primary subject of transhumanist experiments taking place on board a massive futuristic space station. Whether you are a man or a woman is up to you, but either way, your fate will be the same. Things, predictably, start going wrong almost immediately.

Not long before you take the reins as Morgan, the player character of Prey, the Talos 1 space station was taken over by aliens. You’ve seen them in the latest gameplay trailer – wispy clouds of inky black. In the demo, the first hostile encounter is with a mimic, a small shadow that can transform itself into objects in the environment. In other words, even that trash can in the corner might have a bone to pick with you. Stay cautious.

“What you’re trying to do initially is peel back the layers of mystery,” said Ricardo Bare, lead designer at Arkane Austin. “Who am I, and why am I here?” And, of course, where did all these aliens come from? From there the experience will spiral into something open-ended and complex, a first-person narrative experience blending stealth, combat, quiet exploration, and even a bit of psychological horror.

The prevailing wisdom has been that Arkane has been working on Prey since at least 2013, and that the project began as a reboot of the troubled sequel to the cancelled 2006 first-person shooter developed by Human Head Studios. According to Raf Colantonio, Arkane’s co-creative director, however, those rumors don’t hold much water.

“We were never working on a game related to the original Prey,” he said. So why go with the name? “As far as the high concept goes, it made sense,” Raf said. “We do a specific kind of game – player-based games where simulation is important, and in this case, we wanted to do one in space. It made sense for us to call it Prey,” adding: “It’s a cool name.”

Games that prize player choice and complicated, overlapping sets of game systems to mess with are often called “immersive sims”: past examples include Dishonored, Thief, Deus Ex – and the genre traces its origins all the way back to the original System Shock in 1994.

The Talos 1 is a vast complex, an enigmatic place that’s haunted by an alien menace with its own set of systemically implemented behaviors and agenda. To combat them, you’re given transhuman abilities, some of which imitate the aliens themselves. At times, the player uses the same abilities as the mimics, turning into coffee cups and pieces of junk, using the disguise to avoid violence or move through tiny, otherwise inaccessible pathways.

Immersive sims, Colantonio and Bare told me, are rare creatures in the industry, difficult and complex to make and somewhat inaccessible for the casual player. For Arkane, though, these games hold intrinsic value. They’re hoping Prey, with its space station in the middle of disaster and the eerie alien menace – Bare described them as “almost paranormal seeming” – will showcase the beautiful alchemy of the immersive sim’s complexity.

Oh, and those mimics? Don’t get comfortable just because you’ve been through an area before and think you know where they are. “That’s not scripted,” said Bare. “That’s an AI behavior. They scan the environment and go, oh, there’s 10 different things I can turn into here, and they pick one. It can even happen that you mimic something to hide, and then a mimic can come up and mimic you.”

More Informations About Mafia 3 Video Game Scored Kick Ass Sixties Soundtrack

Until now, the Mafia crime games from 2K have tended towards the spats-and-Tommy-guns flavor of Prohibition-era Chicago gangsters, drawing on genre movies like The Untouchables. But Mafia 3, due October 7th, is set in 1968 in the New Orleans-themed fictional city of New Bordeaux, with a story that’s mainly concerned with the escalating war between the black and Italian mob, but also touches on era-appropriate issues: racial tension in the South, the Vietnam War. And thanks to creative director Haden Blackman, a music obsessive, it has a soundtrack to match, packed with 100 carefully curated songs from the era, from rock to blues to soul.

Viewed through the eyes of young, black Vietnam vet Lincoln Clay, the game is primarily an action-packed, drivey-shooty game punctuated with well-written scenes of people swearing at each other. So, a bit like Grand Theft Auto then, except with more of a historical perspective and social conscience. And unlike GTA’s radio stations, the music in Mafia 3 is used movie-style, to punctuate dramatic moments.

“From the outset we knew we had to have a kick-ass soundtrack,” Blackman says. “Our approach was very much that we have to make sure it’s an amazing soundtrack, because that will lead to an amazing game.”

“The first song I knew I wanted to get into the game is a pretty obscure one,” Blackman says. “A song called ‘Desperation’ by Steppenwolf, which I knew from their greatest hits album or whatever. It’s this very moody Steppenwolf song that’s very different than anything else that you know them for.” The song is first used for an emotional scene between Lincoln and Father James, who is a Catholic priest that helped raise him. “He’s kind of an Old Testament guy, so he totally understands Lincoln’s war against the mob,” Blackman explains. “He supports it up to a point, but he warns Lincoln about the cost of this war. Not just in terms of the people that might die, but also on his soul. That’s a hard moment for Lincoln and we have ‘Desperation’ playing in the background.”

Very often a game team will draw up a wish list of music, only to be told by the suits in legal that it was impossible to get any of them. The Mafia 3 team have been extremely lucky. “There were artists that I thought there would be no way we’d ever get, and yet they came through,” Blackman says. “So Creedence, the Rolling Stones, we have the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Elvis. Honestly, I was doubtful that we’d be able to get this wide spectrum of Sixties artists.”

“I really wanted to get ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in, and ‘Paint It Black’ obviously, because it’s such a Vietnam-era song. And then Sam and Dave. It was really important to me to get some representation from Sam and Dave because I could see driving to that, being in combat to that, applying it to cinematics or story moments. Their music is so versatile.”

Selecting the tracks wasn’t just a case of the team sitting around with Spotify open on their computers searching for cool Sixties tracks. Some tunes were picked to help set the gritty, Southern mood of the game, but there were others that were chosen with very specific illustrative purposes.

“We have a moment where you’re chasing down this guy called Uncle Lou who’s the mobster that runs the French Ward,” Blackman explains. “You’ve cornered him on this river boat, which has exploded and you’ve both been thrown into the Bayou. We begin as the lights come up on the cinematic. Lincoln regains consciousness and sees that Lou is trying to struggle his way out of the swamp. That’s when we bring up Creedence’s ‘Green River’ and then that music continues into the gameplay without a break. The song really fits the tone of the moment. It gets you into the right kind of mentality where you’re this kind of stalker moving through the swamp.”

In an unusual narrative device, the game is framed as a tourist video being watched in 2016, about the events of 1968 and Lincoln’s actions. “That gives us a lot more latitude in terms of what music we can include,” Blackman says. “When I look back on some of this music, the way I encountered a lot of it without even realizing it is through covers. There’s a song in the game called ‘You Belong to Me’ from the Duprees. They weren’t the first ones to perform it but that’s the version we have in the game. I actually was introduced to that song through the Misfits version of it,” he says, describing the raw cover of the song from the band’s Project 1950 album.

“We have a moment in the game where you hear the Duprees version and it’s a really dramatic moment between two characters. It’s playing on a radio in the background and it’s very fitting of the moment. Then later we have a really powerful turning point for one of those characters and you hear just a brief snippet of the Misfits version. There’s something really special about the thunder of the Misfits doing this song that’s very poetic and powerful.”

More Informations About Fall Video Game Preview 2016

This year’s lineup of fall video game releases runs the gamut from quirky, hand-drawn indie games to huge, sprawling epics that have been in development hell for more than a decade. It’s a year when beloved franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty are reinventing themselves in completely new settings, virtual reality is pushing into the mainstream, and sports games are no longer satisfied with just simulating what happens on the field.

There are hundreds of games vying for our attention across consoles and the PC between now and the end of December. Here’s a guide to 21 that should be on your radar over the next few months.

‘ReCore’ (Xbox One, PC – September 13)

After an atmospheric intro in 2015, ReCore looked a little iffy during this year’s E3 show in June, but its pedigree can’t be denied. With a sci-fi post-apocalyptic story penned by ex-Bungie alum Joseph Staten, directed by Mark Pacini of Metroid Prime fame and produced by legendary Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, the team behind ReCore is approaching supergroup status – it just needs Tom Morello on guitar.

‘NBA 2K17’ (Xbox One, PS4 – September 20)

If you’re a hoops head who also plays games, it’s likely a moot point – you’re going to cop NBA 2K17. Rest assured, though, that 2K doesn’t seem to be mailing it in this year. Expect some pretty big gameplay changes, like refined shooting mechanics, a more precise and rewarding dribbling game, and a fatigue scheme that better simulates the ebb and flow of athletic performance over the course of a game. Also, for the first time in years, the 1992 USA Dream Team returns, including Jordan, Barkley, Bird, and even Coach K himself, Mike Krzyzewski.

‘Destiny: Rise of Iron’ (Xbox One, PS4 – September 20)

The most compulsive online game this side of Azeroth gets a new installment in September, and it’s just in time. Destiny has lain fallow since The Taken King expansion dropped almost a year ago, and it’s been the longest drought in history for Bungie’s shared-world shooter. When Rise of Iron hits in late September, expect all the standard stuff you’d demand of a Destiny expansion: a new raid, an increased level limit, and a whole bunch of new gear. Perhaps the real treat for Destiny heads, though, is a deeper look into the game’s foundational lore. It’s a fact that the more obscure a game’s lore, the thirstier players are the decipher it, and Destiny is as opaque as it gets.

‘FIFA 17′ (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3 – September 27)

You’d think after 23 years of making FIFA games that they’d start running out of new stuff to add, but this year’s game takes a bold step in the shape of a new mode called “The Journey.” Much like Spike Lee’s questionable “Livin’ Da Dream” in NBA 2K16, this brings a big dose of story and drama into the game’s usually-dry career mode. Working with Manchester United forward Anthony Martial and Real Madrid’s James Rodriguez, EA Sports has crafted what they claim is an authentic representation of life as a player both on and off the pitch. Whether that includes dating reality TV stars remains to be seen.

‘Forza Horizon 3’ (Xbox One, PC – September 27)

If you are inclined towards fast cars but find racing sims like Forza Motorsports 6 unconscionably dull, its younger, hipper cousin Forza Horizon 3 is absolutely aimed at you. Blending the less conventional elements of other racers like Burnout Paradise, Need for Speed, and Test Drive it provides a huge open world (in this case, a big chunk of Australia), then fills it with 350 drool-worthy cars to collect. It’s the only game out there that’ll let you step out of a rare Lamborghini Centenario and straight into a Warthog from Halo.

‘Mafia 3’ (Xbox One, PS4, PC – October 7)

Video games have a lousy track record when it comes to tackling delicate social issues, particularly those around race, but Mafia 3 creative director Haden Blackman believes he can change that. An award-winning writer for his work on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed in 2008 and the Batwoman comic book in 2010, Blackman’s specialty has always been taking grand concepts and making them intimate character pieces. His vision for Mafia 3 puts it in the New Orleans-themed fictional city of New Bordeaux in 1968, and tackles a racially charged mob war from the perspective of a young, black Vietnam vet. “We knew we had a responsibility to address the fact that there were (and still are) race issues in the country,” Blackman says. “The Sixties were such a turbulent time, especially in the South, we would have been totally tone deaf and failed horribly had we not acknowledged it in some way.”