E3 2018: My thoughts on the future of gaming

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E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, just wrapped up its 2018 event. Each year, the biggest companies in the gaming industry show up to display their titles and feature their upcoming AAA games. The collection of games that we saw from Sony, Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, Square Enix, Bethesda, and Nintendo were all quite impressive, and there’s a lot to talk about in regards to what these games represent for the future of the industry. I won’t be going over every single game from each conference since that would be too much to cover, so I’ll just be talking about each company’s major games and announcements in order of when each conference premiered.

 

Electronic Arts

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EA’s conference was pretty straightforward. They mainly just promoted their two major sports titles with Madden NFL 19 and FIFA 19, along with Battlefield V and their new IP, Anthem. As a massive football fan, I enjoy the Madden games, but mainly because I enjoy football and there are no other current football titles available. This is because EA has a monopoly on all NFL and NFLPA-licensed games. This means that if you want to play a football video game, you have nowhere else to go but Madden. FIFA is also pretty starved of competition outside of Pro Evolution Soccer. Essentially, EA really doesn’t have to change much in their sports games because sports fans will buy the games no matter what. It’s unfortunate since that means EA can include in-game microtransactions like Ultimate Team packs that fans will be coerced into buying. It’s one of the many reasons that I am not a fan of EA. Their latest title, Anthem, looks like it might be something new, but at the same time, it seems like it could be a forced Destiny rip-off. The visuals are impressive, the flying mechanics seem fun, and the world looks overall interesting. However, the shooting mechanics don’t look as impressive and there seems to be a lot of clichéd dialogue that might make this new game a hollow but fun experience. It doesn’t appear to be something revolutionary in gaming, both story-wise and gameplay-wise. I only saw a few minutes of Battlefield V gameplay but it looks pretty similar to Battlefield 1, the previous installment. I did enjoy Battlefield 1 so I anticipate that I’ll probably get the same experience from this sequel. Overall, EA had the most generic and safe presentation, with nothing new. On top of that, they spent a lot of time talking about Command and Conquer: Rivals, a mobile game that, trust me, nobody cared about except EA for its money-making potential. It’s clear that EA is not where gamers go to get rich, memorable experiences and interact in creatively-driven communities.

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Both Madden and FIFA are the dominant sports games on consoles. 

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Microsoft

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The Microsoft presentation was a big step-up from EA. As promised, this industry giant showcased 50 games, including “18 console launch exclusives and 15 world premieres”. The show started off by revealing the announcement trailer for the new Halo: Infinite, a sequel to Halo 5: Guardians and a supposed return to form for the franchise that has defined Xbox in the past. I’ll go more into why I love this trailer and why I love Halo in general at another time, but to sum it up…it was beautiful. The trailer was a showcase of the new Slipstream engine that 343 Industries is working on, and I’ll go into why that’s important later. The point is that Microsoft started their show with a bang and didn’t let up. We saw trailers for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (From the developers of Dark Souls), Fallout 76, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Cyberpunk 2077, Just Cause 4, new Cuphead DLC, and even Devil May Cry 5. Though there were mostly a slew of trailers with little gameplay, and though most of the games weren’t exclusives, I still appreciate that Microsoft was able to show so much content for upcoming games. It felt like a true showcase of the many games that will be releasing in the future, and to that end, it did do its job in getting me excited. I was particularly interested in seeing footage for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and Devil May Cry 5, both of which also featured gameplay footage and cutscenes using the in-game engines. As a massive fan of the Souls series, I can’t wait to see what kind of excellent combat and difficult bosses that Sekiro will deliver in its feudal Japanese setting; and as a massive fan of the Devil May Cry franchise before its polarizing reboot, I’m excited to see the franchise get back on track. Microsoft has been struggling as of late to catch up with Sony and its PS4, but I think it delivered enough in terms of game showcase and also the option of the Xbox Game Pass to at least keep Xbox somewhat in the console race.

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Microsoft showcased many world premieres for big titles like Devil May Cry 5 and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Bethesda

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Bethesda was by far the best conference at E3, both in terms of games and presentation. It’s hard to believe that one publisher has had so many excellent games with consistently good quality. The conference had already started strong by showing gameplay for the intriguing Rage 2, followed by highlighting the new Elder Scrolls: Online expansion. Things got amped up to a whole new level when the company revealed sequels to its two most recent first-person shooter hits, Wolfenstein and Doom, with the new Doom: Eternal featuring a Hell-on-Earth demon invasion and with the new Wolfenstein: Youngblood focusing on the twin daughters of Wolfenstein protagonist William Blazkowicz in the 1980’s alternate history of the Fourth Reich. I want to mention that the majority of presenters at E3 are lead developers for the game, but unfortunately while their passion for the game is apparent, their presentation skills are not very strong. That’s where Todd Howard came in for Bethesda. As the director and executive producer of Bethesda, Howard was able to excite the crowd and properly present some of Bethesda’s most exciting titles, including Fallout 76. Another brilliant move by Bethesda came in the form of a fake commercial with Keagan Michael Key satirizing Skyrim and its multiple releases. To put the cherry on top, Howard presented two small teasers for Bethesda’s secretive new IP, Starfield, and the now confirmed The Elder Scrolls VI. Fallout 76 looks like it could be a fun multiplayer experience to play with friends, and I’m so looking forward to the heavy metal awesomeness that is Doom: Eternal. What Bethesda was able to do hat set it apart is a clear display of attention towards what the fans wanted, and a proper presentation of all of their titles. It was clear from what they presented that Bethesda has multiple quality gaming franchises that will hopefully continue to thrive under their wing.Image result for Doom Eternal

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Bethesda showed a wealth of new games, cementing their position as one of the best developers in the industry. 

Ubisoft and Square Enix

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I’ll be honest, I didn’t see either of these conferences and from what I heard they didn’t compare to the other big conferences. Square Enix has some good games coming out with Just Cause 4, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Kingdom Hearts III. It’s also nice that they are importing their critically acclaimed game Neir: Automata to the Xbox One. Captain Spirit also seems like a really unique and imaginative game that could connect with the inner child of may gamers. That being said, there wasn’t too much shown in terms of gameplay, which I would have liked to have seen more of, especially with Just Cause 4. As for Ubisoft, Assassins Creed: Odyssey and Beyond Good and Evil 2 were the only games that caught my attention, and even then I’m not as excited about them as I am for other games. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 was showcased but the first Division game was such a letdown and I didn’t see enough exciting here to swing my opinion.  Overall, these two conferences were somewhat filler for the bigger conferences and not enough was shown in my opinion to warrant any worthy discussion.

 

Sony

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As a brand new owner of a PlayStation console for the first time ever, I was greatly anticipating what Sony would do. Microsoft had already set the bar high so I assumed Sony would have something big in store. What I got was somewhat disappointing. The presentation started with a musical performance that went on way too long. Don’t get me wrong, as a musician, I am always up for giving my undivided attention to a musical performance, and I very much appreciated the skill and beauty of the performances. I just don’t think it was the right move for Sony to start off their show and have so many fans eager for content forced to view a ten-minute instrumental performance. This happened twice, once before showcasing The Last of Us Part II, and once before Ghosts of Tsushima. Luckily, the games themselves showed solid gameplay and, again, all game engine cutscenes. This includes the two aforementioned games as well as the new Spider-Man game and the weird but interesting Death Stranding. I’m mentioning this because only a couple years back, games preferred to have cinematic cutscenes with graphics separate from the actual in-game visuals. Now it seems that more and more games are abandoning this all together and choosing to represent their visuals entirely through the game’s engine, meaning the gameplay and cutscenes are indistinguishable. I don’t think we are there yet, but as technology continues to improve, we may see games that look so realistic in their in-game engine that they are hard to tell apart from reality. Like I said we aren’t there yet, but it may be coming sooner than we think. Despite a rocky presentation and little games, what was shown was excellent, with quality gameplay and impressive graphics from the four main titles of The Last of Us Part II, Ghosts of Tsushima, Death Stranding, and Spider-Man

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Sony’s game showcase was surprisingly sparse but focus on four core exclusives, The Last of Us Part II, Death Stranding, Ghosts of Tsushima, and Spider-Man kept gamers’ interests up.

 

Nintendo

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The big highlight here, though Nintendo did show other games, was Super Smash Bros Ultimate, a sequel to the other Smash games but with the promise to feature every single playable character that has ever made an appearance in any of the previous Smash games. It’s an exciting prospect and overall I’d say that Nintendo has improved their situation with the good sales of the Switch and quality games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and soon this.

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate looks to deliver the most exciting brawling experience featuring all Nintendo characters to have previously been in Smash games

Overall Thoughts

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This year’s E3 was pretty exciting, and though I didn’t get to see everything I thought I would (new Mortal Kombat, new Superman game, etc.), there were still plenty of exciting games to look forward to. Bethesda came away on top with Microsoft and Sony following closely behind. Some of what I saw from the in-game graphics of these games was simply incredible. Death Stranding, Halo: Infinite, and Ghosts of Tsushima all featured breath-taking in-game visuals and inspiring music that were actually more appealing than what I’ve seen in the world of cinema. I games continue to focus on art, storytelling, and community engagement, they will replace cinema as the perfect amalgamation of other artistic mediums.

The Dark Souls Effect

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Dark Souls is a 2011 role-playing video game developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco. The game continues the design and gameplay of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls. It is specifically known for its difficulty, vague instructions, and complex storytelling that must be pieced together through the environment and through objects and descriptions within the game. Due to the design, style, and especially the intense difficulty, there has been a recent trend in gaming where a game is referred to as “Souls-like” or “The Dark Souls of…”. For example, Cuphead is “The Dark Souls of two-dimensional side-scroller platforming games” or Thumper is “The Dark Souls of rhythm games”. It’s obvious that these comparisons are rather exaggerated, and Dark Souls, as well as the other Souls games developed by FromSoftware, are unique. The only “Dark Souls of” anything is Dark Souls itself, however, due to the breakout popularity of the Souls franchise, game developers and journalists have resorted to drawing comparisons between their properties and the Souls games. It’s not a foreign concept, as movies pitched to studios have often been described as “it’s Die Hard meets Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars meets Titanic”. Drawing comparison to a more popular property makes it easier for companies to convey what they want people to think of their properties. In the case of Dark Souls though, the comparisons have been blown out of proportion to the point where anything even remotely difficult will be compared to Dark Souls. This is all related to something I like to call, “The Dark Souls Effect”. I’m going to be discussing what exactly “The Dark Souls Effect” is, its upsides and drawbacks, and how it will impact the future of gaming.

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The Souls games consist of Demon’s Souls (2009), Dark Souls (2011), Dark Souls II (2014), Bloodborne (2015), and Dark Souls III (2016).

I first picked up the original Dark Souls in 2014, and after struggling through only the first fourth of the game, I quit in a fit of rage. The game was simply too hard for me. Each enemy felt like a major threat, and the bosses were massively intimidating. I had also convinced myself that the game was simply unstylish and had clunky mechanics that made the difficulty artificial (I still think the game is a little clunky even now). I didn’t touch another Souls game until 2016 when Dark Souls 3 was released. Though I was still hesitant, under peer pressure and some considerable hype, I caved and bought the game. After some learning, I quickly fell in love with Dark Souls 3, and it is now in my top 5 greatest games of all time. Hungry for more Souls, I went back and played the original Dark Souls, this time playing through the whole thing and beating it faster than I did Dark Souls 3. I then played Dark Souls 2, and then Dark Souls 1 and 3 again multiple times. In the past two years, I’ve invested at least 300 hours in the Souls games, and I recently bought a PlayStation 4 primarily so that I could play the PlayStation exclusive Bloodborne, which is also a Souls game but with a different setting and story. I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty experienced when it comes to the Souls games. What sets them apart from other games isn’t just the difficulty, but rather the minimalistic approach to guiding the player, and the vastness of the detailed worlds in which the games take place. When you first play the original Dark Souls, the world is interconnected and massive, crawling with enemies and teaming with areas to explore and items to discover. The world is also bleak, harsh, and dangerous. As the player, you don’t feel powerful, you feel insignificant. Everything in this world is bigger than you and can crush you in an instant. Because of this, it feels immensely rewarding when you overcome such overwhelming odds. It feels as if you triumphed over something that you weren’t meant to, like David against Goliath. There’s also the exploration aspect of discovering hidden areas and new helpful items. The fact that the player has to piece together the story and also figure out themselves what they have to do in the game makes it more active rather than passive. There’s also no pause button so you really have to be engaged and focus in. Then there’s the boss battles, exciting action set pieces against a single foe with a large health pool and high damage output where dodging and understanding their move set is key. These boss battles invoke something that transcends passivity in gaming. I can describe in detail the way I feel in many boss encounters in the Souls game: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and eyes glued to the screen. Then there’s beating the boss, a feeling of complete joy and triumph swells inside me as I either take a deep sigh of relief, jump for joy, and in some cases, cry tears (Yes I literally cried tears of joy when I beat the hardest boss in the Souls series). These moments created within me an obsession with these games, where the only thing I wanted to play was another Souls game, or something similar. When I ran out of Souls games to play, I played them again, and when I was done with that, I searched for other games that had the same kind of difficulty. Dark Souls and anything similar became like a drug for me, I just had to have my fix.  It’s likely that other gamers felt this way too, and so the industry responded by pushing out “Souls-like” games. This push for higher difficulty, more RPG elements, and intricate level design in games is what I call “The Dark Souls Effect”.

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Dark Souls thrusts players into a massive, interconnected world with dangerous foes.

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Intense boss battles take place throughout the game.

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The benefit of “The Dark Souls Effect” is that it’s a counterbalance to games like Call of Duty and movie-based “handholding” games where every aspect of the game is told to you through visual cues and arrow signs. The lack of in-game microtransactions, longer story, and greater emphasis on fluid gameplay also benefits the gaming industry. Games like Nioh and the new God of War have been successful in creating a variant of the Souls style of combat. Not every game is successful in copying the Souls formula, however, and games like Lords of the Fallen or The Surge came off more as imitations rather than their own experiences. Many developers in the industry have misunderstood the true greatness of Dark Souls, and have instead tacked on difficulty to their games. The thing is that Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne are unique in their overall package, through design and gameplay just as much as difficulty. It’s perfectly fine for other games to take inspiration from the series and try and improve their level design, gameplay, and world-building, but games coming off as lazy Dark Souls clones like Lords of the Fallen are happening more and more. It’s the same issue with Battle Royale modes from Fortnite and PUBG being copied. Call of Duty Black Ops 4 doesn’t need a Battle Royale mode but it’s doing it instead of a campaign mode to exploit the popularity of the Battle Royale mode.

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Games like The Surge, Lords of the Fallen, Nioh, and God of War have borrowed some elements from the Souls games, though God of War doesn’t simply copy them and has its own franchise to draw inspiration from.

Now, E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo for major game developers is right around the corner. Amongst the lineup, FromSoftware is teasing a new game called “Shadows Die Twice” which some have speculated to be a sequel to Bloodborne. The Souls formula hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, and we will likely get more games similar to Dark Souls. This is all fine and good, if there will be more Souls-like games, odds are some of them will be good and some won’t. I myself am conflicted on the continuation of the Souls series. Many have argued, and it is believed to be so, that Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki never meant for a sequel to Dark Souls itself, and instead wanted to continue making passion projects with the same style of gameplay and level design like Bloodborne was, but the studio pushed forward with a Dark Souls sequel after the popularity of the original game. To that end, I hope the Souls formula continues but with new creative stories and periods. Demon Souls was clearly a medieval dungeon/castle crawler whereas Dark Souls was an open world, full-scale dark fantasy, and Bloodborne was Victorian Gothic. Though I’d be more than happy to play a Bloodborne 2, I would be just as thrilled or even more thrilled to play something fresh and new that adapts the Souls formula in new and innovative ways.

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The Souls games are some of the best games ever made. They have shown that video games can be challenging, thought-provoking, adaptive, mature, and still be extremely fun. There’s a true sense of engagement and accomplishment when playing through these games, and the impact they’ve made on the video game industry should hopefully continue with a greater focus on fair and rewarding difficulty. Challenge is one of the most important features of a video game. Much like a story needs the characters to overcome obstacles, the gamer needs obstacles to overcome in the game. Dark Souls boldly challenged players to take control of their characters and learn and discover how to play through a dark and formidable world. Though none of the games are perfect, they are all masterpieces in their own right for furthering the formula. The importance of “The Dark Souls Effect”, is that regardless of its quality, it highlights the need for detail and passion in creating challenging and fluid gameplay, complex world building and level design, and greater player interactivity and control. “The Dark Souls Effect” stirs up attention for a debate in gaming that is necessary and vital to the industry as a means of combating the rising corporatization of games. It presents the promising prospect of the gaming community asking for more games like Dark Souls that will improve gaming as an art form.

Video Games: The Art of the Future

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There has been a certain social stigma against video games for as long as I can remember. Many people consider video games to be a lesser form of art and even more refuse to consider video games as an art form art at all. Of course, most of these people have either never seen a video game, or never played a video game and are only basing their conclusions off of viewing other people play games. What I’m saying now isn’t an opinion. Video games cannot and will not be denied the right to be considered a form of art. Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory, or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power”. By this definition, which I would say is a pretty holistic definition, video games qualify as works of art without question. Yet, in our current society, video games are seen more as mind-numbing forms of entertainment meant to distract kids and sedate teenagers. It’s funny because there was a time when other forms of entertainment such as movies and comic books were considered distractors and sideshows that wouldn’t qualify as art. Over time, these mediums eventually became accepted into the prestigious world of high art, complete with their own prestigious awards and snooty critics. Art is about immersion, reflection, connection, and appreciation. How is admiring a landscape painting by Frederic Remington different from appreciating the painstakingly crafted digital atmosphere of the new God of War? Actually, there is a difference…the art presented in video games is more immersive and advanced in regards to interactivity than many other mediums. That’s why I believe video games are not only a rich medium of art but also the medium of the future. There are more and more people buying and playing games each year, and I believe that as time goes on, public perception will change about video games and they will join the pantheon of high art. There are, however, some roadblocks that need addressing that will hinder the progress of games becoming recognized by the general populace as art. I’ll touch on these as we move along assessing what makes video games so incredible as artworks.

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The first thing to recognize is that like movies, video games are an amalgamation of multiple mediums. Just like a movie has music, acting, cinematography, set design, and much more, video games have writing, music, voice acting, motion capture work, digitally rendered environments, interactive gameplay, and much much more. A game like Cuphead has beautiful animation and an incredible big band score. Games like The Witcher series, Uncharted, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are praised for their gorgeous visuals and environments. If you’ve ever seen a collection of cutscenes in video games, you’d see how cinematic they truly are. I’ve seen some counterarguments stating that the things surrounding the video game such as art design, visuals, and music are components that could be considered art, but the gameplay and the full product itself can’t be considered art, but quite frankly that’s ridiculous. When you play a game, the immersion depends upon whether or not the decisions of the player are accurately translated by the game. Multiple people dedicate time to making sure the movements of the game avatar precisely match the commands given by the gamer. There has to be a flow to the gameplay, effectively serving as an extension of the gamer’s own being. A game with bad gameplay is like a poorly made sculpture. In a game, you not only soak in the music, visuals, story, acting, and dialogue, you also soak in the gameplay. Another reason that the full product of a game is art, is the underlying primary objective of any work of art. The elements of any medium, be it visual or aural or sensory, is to tell a story.

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Everything a video game does is to tell a story. It can be a tale of adventure and excitement, fire and fury, survival and horror, etc. Everything, including multiplayer games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, requires a narrative that can either be told by the creators of the game or presented as a blank canvas to the player to create their own stories. When it comes to the traditional linear narrative, video games happen to have some of the best contemporary works of our time. The Halo series crafted an expansive epic filled with additional literature and lore that mirror the literary works of Tolkien. Games like The Last of Us take the player on an emotional journey where they grow with the characters. And my personal favorite game, BioShock, is a reflection of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.

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Like I said, there is that special factor to games that makes it the art of the future: immersion. A video game is controlled by the player, therefore the direction the narrative takes is determined by the player, or at the very least the connection that between the player and the narrative runs deeper than other forms of art. If you think about a game like Halo, there’s a silent protagonist, the Master Chief, that is always behind a suit of armor so that the player can project themselves into the game as that character. The Master Chief is given little development so that the player feels like they are him when they go through the events of the game. When you watch a movie, you see the protagonist overcome the challenges, but in a game, you overcome the challenges yourself. You earn the moments by overcoming the challenge. You don’t just remember passively being there, you remember the experience of you doing those things. Challenge and immersion are the golden tools from which a game gets its power. Players want to feel more immersed in the game, they want to feel the intensity. A video game with no challenge can be bland, repetitive, and uninteresting. A challenging game like Dark Souls gets a player’s heart rate up and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they achieve victory. To add to the immersion factor of games, choice can often be a key component of a game. Role-playing-games like Skyrim present the player with a whole world to explore and engage in storylines on their own and at their own pace. In Mass Effect, how you talk to a character determines your relationship with them throughout the game. Because of these interactive games, the experience is different each time. Characters can change and adapt to how you play, and the story adapts to the choices you make. In this way, games are adapting pieces of reality and embedding them into their art more so than other mediums. Entire worlds can be built in games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet.  Art often mirrors reality, and games are becoming more and more like real life. With the advent of virtual reality, video games will only continue to become more life-like. Through this increased immersion, video games are transcending other mediums and doing things that no other mediums can do.

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This renaissance of gaming and its movement towards greater recognition should continue to develop as long as story and immersion continue to shine over the commercial aspects of games. As long as games are treated like works of art by their distributors, and not capitalized by shady monetary tactics, then games should be well on their way to high art status. Unfortunately, companies like EA are treating the consumers like dirt and commercializing the art of gaming by introducing said shady tactics. These tactics came in the form of in-game microtransactions. Microtransactions were originally used in free to play and mobile games as a way for them to make money, but of course AAA game developers thought why not add them to $60 games. High priced DLC (downloadable content) already served as a way to get extra money from consumers, and with games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront the $60 product ended up being completely bare bones and unfinished in every way while the $50 season pass was marketed front and center. Microtransactions were an added bonus for games to make more money, and for good reason. Microtransactions make video game companies massive amounts of money, sometimes even more than digital sales for the games. The biggest form of microtransactions is randomized loot boxes. This means that players can purchase in-game content that is given completely at random. So you might be asking, what’s the big deal? So what if games have microtransactions it’s not like the gamer has to buy them? It’s not like not buying them affects your ability to play the game right? Well, that’s where the controversy lies. In some games, microtransactions are just annoying. It used to be that you had to unlock certain things in a game like more playable characters or skins. It felt like an accomplishment to get more in-game content. Now, everything is randomized, so even if you get a thousand loot boxes, you may still not get the content you actually want. In games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II, however, loot boxes are tied to progression, and purchasing microtransactions in the game allows you to unlock content much faster than people who don’t (for example, you can buy a hero for $10 or spend 40 hours unlocking them). Another unfortunate fact is that microtransactions are nearly in every major game, from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, to even single player titles like Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions are something that the gaming community may just have to live with for some time.

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The ever-expanding world of video games is facing some of its biggest challenges while it brings in an increasing audience. Companies like Activision and EA have prioritized earning money over providing a quality product and treating their customers with respect. The harmful strategies of these companies do not have to be the norm in the gaming industry. As long as games like God of War, Cuphead, and Dark Souls continue to be made, the high art that is video games should triumph over corporate greed. I know I got off on a bit of a tangent with the microtransactions rant, but the truth is that video games are very near and dear to my heart. Video games inspire me to soak in new worlds, learn new music, and engage in new and interesting narratives. The beauty of video games is under attack by these corporate models, and so I wanted to highlight the issue facing the industry as it continues to gain more recognition.

 

Cuphead Review

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What can I say about Cuphead? Cuphead is a “run and gun indie video game” developed by StudioMDHR for the PC and Xbox One. Cuphead is incredibly fun, filled with beautiful colors and incredible music. It’s also INSANELY HARD. That’s right, Cuphead, disguised as an innocent little kids’ game is a harbinger of doom and frustration the likes of which has never been seen in any recent game I’ve played including the Dark Souls games.  It’s a game with very little room for error and no healing mechanics. Throughout my experience with the game, I found so many things that I absolutely adored and equally as many things that I absolutely hated. Its frustrations stem from its difficulty and in-game animations that cause problems during gameplay. There’s one more thing, I SUCK AT CUPHEAD. I’ve always been terrible at 2-D side-scrollers so I knew the game wouldn’t be a park, but I just had to play it after seeing all the hype and the comparisons to my beloved Dark Souls games. I’ll do my best to properly break down all of the aspects of the game, I can’t promise I won’t either gush about what I love or rage about what I hate about the game. Consider this an unbalanced emotional review about a game that evokes within me emotions on both sides of the spectrum.

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The story follows Cuphead and his pal Mugman who are both apparently living tableware. They gamble at the Devil’s Casino and lose their souls to the Devil. In an effort to save their souls, Cuphead and Mugman strike a deal with the Devil to collect the souls of other deviants running from the Devil. These deviants makeup the 19 bosses on Inkwell Island who Cuphead must take down. Inkwell Island acts as a hub world for the game, where Cuphead can move around freely and interact with the various playable missions. The player can either collect the debts owed to the Devil by fighting the bosses or playing “Run-and-Gun” levels where they move through obstacles and fight multiple enemies in order to collect gold coins and buy more weapons and abilities.

 

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Cuphead’s visual style feels right out of a 1930’s cartoon.

 

The uniqueness of Cuphead is due to its visual and musical style paying homage to 1930’s animation. It’s obvious that the creators were heavily influenced by early Walt Disney animations like Steamboat Willie, and they executed their vision perfectly. The overall animation is flawless. All of the movements of the characters are seamless and if someone were to watch gameplay footage they might think they were actually watching an animation from the 1930’s. The screen is always filled with color, the visual flair of Cuphead makes it a spectacle of a game that is not only entertaining to play but also to watch. Accompanying the brilliant animation is the music, the other half of the aesthetic whole. Cuphead’s soundtrack, composed by Kristofer Maddigan, features original jazz, big band, and ragtime music that resembles the works of Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. As a jazz musician who’s played a couple big band gigs, I can genuinely say that the charts here are spectacular. Every instrument has an audible and distinct sound and the selection of instruments vary from tune to tune. The tunes themselves range from whimsical calliope/circus-like to lightning fast swing or bebop tracks. In the boss battles, jazz has never sounded so intense, the upswing tempos and shredding saxophones create a frenzied pace as you desperately try to dodge a barrage of attacks. The ragtime and waltz-like pieces in Inkwell Island connect well with the movement and give you a nice change of pace from the intense action.

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Speaking of the intense action, Cuphead tries to crush you with it. The difficulty, in my opinion, is through the roof. I say this having played through all three of the Dark Souls games multiple times. By the way, this game has drawn a lot of comparisons to Dark Souls in terms of difficulty so I won’t hesitate in drawing them myself. As I’ve said, Cuphead is way harder than anything from Dark Souls, and the reason why is because Dark Souls gives the player a lot more control. It is an RPG you have the freedom to move around, explore, run away, gain distance from enemies, and dodge attacks in three dimensions. If you’re having trouble with a boss, you can upgrade your weapons and buy armor and level up stats until you can face the boss on a better playing field. In Cuphead, your movement is usually limited to the area that is on the screen, half of which is usually taken up by bosses. This gives you little room for movement or error, forcing you into corners and platforms and giving you mere inches of space to dodge multiple projectile attacks. There is no leveling up, and you can only choose from six abilities and six weapons. Oh, and by the way, you can only take three hits before you die. Considering that each level features about twenty thousand projectiles flying at you every second, I’d say three hits means little breathing room for the player.

Cuphead
There are several aerial boss fights using a bi-plane.

To beat an especially hard boss, sometimes you just have to be perfect. Your dodging and firing have to be exact and you need to anticipate the attacks before they come and be in a position to exploit them; Only then do you feel like a badass when you beat the bosses. Often times the difficulty is so frustrating you end up following a side-scrolling platforming version of “spraying and praying” which hurts the game just a bit. In Dark Souls, when I beat a really difficult boss I always feel this moment of overwhelming relief and joy. But because sometimes I’m just randomly firing at the bosses and hoping for them to die, I don’t feel as powerful or overjoyed as I was beating bosses in Dark Souls. Instead, I’m more relieved that the Cuphead bosses are done. Some of the difficulty issues stem from the in-game mechanics. The button to shoot on the Xbox One is X, but the button to jump is A, which is right next to X. It’s not a major hindrance, but it does take some getting used to since the buttons are so close together. The right analog stick not being used is another issue of gameplay. In order to aim, you have to hold down the RB button to lock the character in place while you shoot. This could easily be avoided by having the right analog stick to aim and RB or RT to shoot instead of X. Another issue is that sometimes the space is so small that you feel you are getting hitboxes in places where you shouldn’t. The animation, though very fluid especially with the bosses, can sometimes obscure important set pieces needed to defeat the bosses. I find myself getting hit for no reason until I notice small little projectiles almost completely blended into the background. Yet another issue, is that the backgrounds, though visually interesting, can sometimes interfere with the platforming. In at least three different boss fights, the platforms on which I had to stay on where lightly colored and melding into the light background. This would often be a frustration when I would jump to what I thought was a platform but was actually nothing, causing me to take a hit.

 

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Aiming requires standing still.

 

Despite the faults with some of the aspects of the gameplay, I still have to chalk up a lot of the difficulty to the fact that I suck at the game. All art is subjective, and when it comes to something that is complicated to figure out, whether it’s an intricate thriller film or a hard video game, peoples’ subjective views on what they see will often be affected by the obstacles that they faced in understanding the experience. I know some people who think Dark Souls is the greatest thing ever (me) and others who think it’s a terribly clunky game series with unnecessary difficulty. The experience of a game will be affected by the player’s ability to play through the game. Dark Souls is not for everyone, and neither is Cuphead. That being said, I still think Cuphead is a fantastic game. Aside from the few frustrating difficulty and gameplay issues, the game is wildly entertaining and a joy to look at. It’s a near flawless product if you consider sound design, graphics, story, pacing, etc. Being a big fan of early swing and jazz music, and early cinema and animation (I love Tom & Jerry), the style and aesthetic of Cuphead clicked with me more than anything else in the game. If you’re a fan of arcade-style games and aren’t afraid to die a few times (or a lot), then I would definitely recommend checking out Cuphead. Especially considering its price of $20, the game is a steal.

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