My Thoughts on Call of Duty: Black Ops III

With CoD:BO3 being free this month for PS Plus members, I thought I’d give it a shot (if you’ll excuse the pun). I’ve only ever tried to play one other CoD game, and it was Modern Warfare 2. I put it down after about two hours because I was so fed up with being bombarded with the message that America’s military is the greatest in the world, and if anyone ever says otherwise we’ll bomb them into oblivion. Even the loading screens were blueprints of weapons of mass destruction, proudly boasting how many lives could be taken if they wanted to.

I recall Good Game said CoD:III had a great single-player campaign, and after so many hours of crawling through vents in Deus Ex (both Human Revolution and Mankind Divided), I wanted to play something that was the very opposite of stealth. And CoD handled wonderfully – the control were tight, the gunfights were challenging but not unfair (at least on the harder difficulty mode I chose) and the options for different weapon loadouts allowed for a variety of playstyles.

Yet I put it down again after making my way barely halfway through the story because I found the characters disikable and the plot unrealistic. Everyone in the military seems to be an angry white dude (except for my character, who I was happy to see I could make female). More upsetting though was the idea that my player had both her arms ripped off and a leg broken, and hours later her commanders were making her replay terrorist missions in a kind of virtual reality. She hadn’t even had life-saving surgery yet when they were putting her right back into traumatically violent missions, no explanations or options. The game didn’t talk about PTSD in a particularly helpful way, stating that it’s just very vivid memories that it can be fixed with the right medication.

I can’t help but compare this to the excellent Deus Ex. In Human Revolution, Jensen suffers traumatic injuries, and in order to save his life he is given high-end augmentations. He feels conflicted about the surgery, and six months into his recovery (getting used to his new limbs and processing the trauma he went through), he is reluctantly called back to duty to stop a terrorist act. In Mankind Divided, he meets an augmented lady who has developed a second personality to protect her mind from the trauma of her reality as a persecuted aug. Jensen never questions or belittles her for doing her best to stay sane in an insane world, and I appreciated that so much. CoD by comparison… It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Tight as the gameplay was, once I found my favourite gun and ability I used them in every mission and the lack of variety really started to wear on me. It was more fun when I branched out to multiplayer and had a teammate to fight alongside with, but 90% of the way through the mission he stopped moving (either had to go afk or was affected by some kind of bug), and I couldn’t complete the mission without him. It was a bad way to finish, and I didn’t mind uninstalling it rather than replaying the mission. I ended up googling the plot, which turned out to be surprisingly sophisticated, but I don’t think it was worth several hours of slogging through the campaign. Not a terrible game, but not a great one either. I don’t think I’ll bother with any other CoD’s.

Trying My Hand at Football

One of my favourite memories in high school is playing football during phys ed classes in Year 9. I’m not fond of those times because I was good at or enjoyed the sport – quite the contrary, I was terrible at it. I look back with a smile because of one of my classmates.

JB was the son of a prominent football star, and everyone expected him to follow in his Father’s footsteps. What’s more is that he probably would – the guy was a gun at football and had every chance of becoming an AFL star after graduation.

You might thing I’d be intimidated playing alongside an ace like him, and you’d be right. I became even clumsier in my desperation to pass the ball to him, and I unfailingly tossed him the ball rather than passed it with my fist. After a whole term of enduring this, during the final match of the year I threw the ball to JB when the coach blew the whistle for yet another foul. It would have been easy for JB to turn on me for the incompetent sportsman I was, but instead he turned to the coach and yelled “He’s trying!”

The coach went through with the foul anyway, but I never forgot that JB accepted that my best was my best, and he didn’t blame me for it. It reminds me that all of us are doing our best to be happy in life, and from where I’m standing that’s good enough for me. I hope you all have JB’s in your lives to remind you of that from time to time!

Replaying Katawa Shoujo: Lilly’s Path

Replaying Katawa Shoujo for the second time proved to be a much bigger deal than I anticipated. It had been three and a half years since I first encountered the visual novel and spent six months completing all of the paths and story arcs. Because I lost my save file (and all those precious screenshots I took) when my hard drive corrupted, I only had a vague memory of the major story points, and it was a joy to rediscover the magic of the small moments.

The reason I got back into KS was because I mentioned it to a friend, and then linked him to the first blog I wrote about my experiences. Since writing those initial articles in 2014 (you can read them under the tag Katawa Shoujo), the posts have been read by hundreds, maybe thousands of people from around the world.

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Stats for the first half of 2018

I was curious to see if my blog was somehow one of the most popular KS blogs on the internet, so I googled it started reading a bunch of other blogs. I discovered a facebook group that I had never thought to look for, and have found it to be one of the greatest sources of joy in my social media experience. There’s this special connection I have with so many strangers around the world, and it’s been wonderful finding that KS has meant as much (or more) to others as it has to me. The group is a celebration of many of the best parts of KS, and I’ve been so grateful to encounter so much amazing fanart and to see so many people posting for Hanako’s birthday. Plus, discussions around the soundtrack have got me listening to (and playing piano arrangements of) the score again. It’s such a passionate and largely wholesome community, and I’m blown away (and a little intimidated) by the dedication of the artists, musicians, authors and appreciators who give so freely of themselves.

Anyway, I downloaded the game again and worked my way through Lilly’s path like I said I would three years ago. Let me tell you, the feels hit me harder than I was ready for. I cried so much. Like, full body-wracking sobs. After the second heart attack, I literally said (between choking on tears), “Lilly, Lilly, it’s so fucking good to see you again.” What a rollercoaster.

Having the benefit of experience, I found it really interesting to replay the game with a deeper understanding of everyone’s character and backstory. For instance, I used to think of Lilly and Shizune as opposites. Whereas Lilly was thoughtful, measured and poised, Shizune was all spontaneity and passion. And yet, they turned out to be more similar than I had realised; they were both thoughtful, considerate and caring, just that they had different ways of showing it.

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I learned a lot about Hanako through this playthrough as well. When she learned that Hisao and Lilly were a couple, she made the conscientious decision to give them more space and privacy so that their relationship could develop. As a result, she started studying harder and thinking of her future. When Naomi wanted help in the newspaper club, she slowly took on more and more responsibility and found a whole new group of friends. When she decided to go travelling over the holidays, Naomi’s company was welcome but not essential. It was by breaking away from Lilly that she could really start to find her own feet. Honestly, Hanako has taught me so about strength, and I’m reminded that protecting others from their feelings rarely serves to honour who they are as people.

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As I played, I was incredibly aware of the fragility of Hisao’s budding relationship, and the myriad of ways it could (and would) go horribly wrong if I wasn’t careful. I flinched at every conflict, painfully aware that I was one or two choices away from a “bad ending” at any moment. I sometimes found it hard to relax, even when things were going well, because I knew it wouldn’t last.

And that’s kind of the point isn’t it? One of the themes explored in Lilly’s path is that all things are transient, and that nothing lasts. At times Hisao contemplated the view that “life wasn’t a fairy tale” and that everything good comes to an end. But other times he explored the alternative, that worries could be set aside while he treasured the present moment. There were so many moments in the game where he and Lilly decided not to think about the future and to just enjoy each other’s company while they could.

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And Lilly really was the best part of Hisao’s life. Playing it through a second time, I noted the instances in which Lilly took Hisao under her wing, and saw him as someone who needed care and support. And I also noticed the many times in which Hisao took care of both her and Hanako. I came to realise that being around and offering help when needed was very different from taking the initiative and going out of his way to be there for Lilly. The only example that springs to mind is when he bought her the music box, and in a way it’s what saved their relationship. Hisao realised this, almost too late on the night Lilly was leaving. And so perhaps for the first time, Hisao didn’t just sit back and let Lilly continue with her plans. He made a resolution: that he couldn’t let her go without at least trying to stop her.

The last time I played, I couldn’t understand how Hisao could justify asking Lilly to give up her family and choose to stay with him in Japan. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve come to a few realisations:

  1. Hisao saw that there was a part of her that didn’t want to go. She wanted to be with Hisao, but she was so used to putting others first that she couldn’t bring herself to ask for what would have made her truly happy. By putting his foot down Hisao wasn’t forcing her to change her mind; he was offering her the future she wouldn’t allow herself to consider.
  2. He reminded her of the promise he had made to her in the wheatfields: to always be there for her, in her joy and in her sadness, and to see her true smile. He was asking for Lilly to believe in their future together, to consider it to be worth just as much as a future with her family.
  3. Hisao well knew how much it hurt to lose everything and everyone. He saw Lilly about to go through the same thing, and he did everything he could to stop it.
  4. He also knew how much Lilly feared loss, and how it lead her to hold herself apart from everyone through her shield of perfect composure. In the end, it was his mad dash to the airport that made Lilly realise how much she loved him, and how much she was willing to give up in order to be with him.

It still gives me chills to think about. The more I consider it, the more I feel like it was a mature exploration of some really heavy stuff. The ending is heartbreaking, and beautiful, and perfect.

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Still, I have to say the experience of replaying Katawa Shoujo was surprisingly difficult for me. Truth be told, this version of Hisao reminded me uncomfortably of myself in high school, and as much as I loved the story, it hit a little too close to home for me. Those years of my life were formative but not pleasant, and I found it really hard to spend so much time with a character who reminded me of a time I would rather have left forgotten. Honestly, it’s taken me a few days to write this because I’ve been working through some old thoughts and feelings (read: I’ve been an emotional wreck). All up, I’m really glad I replayed the game and got to fall in love with Lilly all over again, but I’ve decided to take a break from stories set in high school, and might come back to KS in the future.

If you’d like to read my other blogs on KS written after my first playthroughs, you can find them here:

Lilly
Emi
Rin
Shizune
Hanako

My thoughts on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Coming fresh off the back of the excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I just finished Mankind Divided and it is exactly what I hoped it would be: better in every way.

Let me say again that I have always hated stealth games. I cannot stand the idea of staying invisible to patrolling enemies. Even worse is being detected, being chased, and then finding somewhere to hide while guards slowly search for me. This is literally the stuff of nightmares for me, and rather than try and sneak through a building undetected, my preference has always been to kill everyone in open combat so that there’s no one left to detect me.

In spite of my loathing for this kind of genre, it didn’t taken me long to once again feel like a walking badass. A few hours into the game, I was given a dozen praxis points to use as I saw fit, I immediately maxed out my hacking skills, acquired some new lungs, accessed my super jump, and overcharged my arms. In one incredibly satisfying fell swoop, the whole of the city suddenly opened before me. While it’s true that Prague 2029 didn’t have as much personality as Detroit or Hengsha, it was thrilling that almost from the start I could unlock every pathway and find every secret.

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And what a treasure trove of secrets there were! I’m not talking about weapon caches or hidden safes (though don’t get me wrong, I plundered the hell out of those too). I’m talking people’s secrets. The lives behind closed doors. I felt like an omniscient phantom, letting myself into people’s homes and uncovering every hidden facet of their lives.

It was heartbreaking to learn of the artist who, because she was augmented, wasn’t being recognised for her talent and who was trying to gather enough money to smuggle her and her partner out of Prague. I discovered a drug dealer’s apartment whose wild parties apparently eventuated in the creation of a double-decker couch. I felt a touch of sadness at the college student whose parents had been suddenly detained for donating to a pro-aug charity, and who had to drop out of school to care for his ten-year-old sister in exchange for access to his inheritance. Everything about the condo screamed that he wasn’t ready for guardianship, and that he wished that she could be adopted by the foster family who wanted to be her parents.

Perhaps most interesting was the apartment of a gentleman who seemed to go out of his way to project the image that all he did in his spare time was go rock climbing and cycling. Despite the luxury and militaristic neatness, it was clear that the apartment had barely been lived in. Digging a little deeper, the home was the epitome of loneliness: only one of the six fancy chairs at the dining table was being used, and it was to drink a bottle of wine while reading custody claims and divorce papers from his ex-husband (same-sex representation, what a surprise to find it in a game like this!). Further snooping indicated that he was an Australian war veteran who was still part of a tight-knit squad of friends that were helping one of their group get through PTSD after “the Incident”. Additionally, in a hidden room (activated by punching bag!) he still kept his sniper rifle, and was apparently not entirely retired… All this without ever speaking to the character. Honestly, the environmental design team deserve to win piles of award and recognition for their genius and hard work.

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Subtle photos on the wall painted a vivid picture of happier times.

 

Combing over every inch of the game allowed me to learn a great deal about major characters. For instance, in one mission I was to abduct a particular individual for questioning. Through watching his broadcasts, reading emails and finding pocket secretaries, I learned that he was struggling with alcoholism and the burden of maintaining a public image. When I finally confronted him, this allowed me a greater degree of compassion as I decided how to handle the situation.

My thoroughness did have its drawbacks though. The game dropped a handful of hints about some major plot developments, and because I found them all, I saw the “twists” coming a mile away. At one point I found myself screaming “DON’T DRINK THE CHAMPAIGN” while Jensen was chatting cluelessly to the people who could have stopped a mass-poisoning.

One thing that must be mentioned is how well the developers explored the issues of discrimination, oppression and genocide. I can’t claim to be an expert on these subjects, but I’ve been thinking more about privilege lately and I really appreciate the complex and nuanced view that the devs took when writing about a futuristic mechanical apartheid. The game looked at both overt discrimination, like having a designated train carriage for augmented citizens, and subvert discrimination like  a casual line in an email that essentially said “Are you interested in dating? Don’t worry, I’m not augmented”.

 

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Tensions were high between augmented and “natural” citizens.

From the trailer, I was worried the game would force me into a binary: aug or natural, us vs them. Fortunately, the game did a remarkable job of making me feel like all choices were equally viable, and that many different beliefs were tenable for their own reasons. I deeply appreciated Rucker’s courageous and non-violent message in the face of terror and abuse, and for the most part I avoided conflict, believing the long-term solution lay in changing the system rather than killing any particular individuals. For the most part, the occupants of Prague were just doing their jobs, and I went to great lengths to avoid killing any of them as I did whatever needed to be done.

Having said that, there were precisely three occasions where I felt the need to use lethal methods. After spending so many hours carefully sneaking around, incapacitating foes non-lethally, it was a strange and euphoric experience to know that the guy I put down wouldn’t get up again and shoot me in the back if his buddy woke him up. It became easier and easier to kill after I did it the first time, and I found myself tempted to assassinate anyone who I saw as an obstacle, or as a “bad person”. It was terrifying to notice I had become the totalitarian regime I was trying to undermine, judge, jury and executioner all in one. I appreciate how seriously the game took murder, and how there were so many opportunities to avoid it if I was patient, bold and clever.

As with most RPG’s, I got a little carried away with the roleplaying, too. Whenever I felt like I might be heading into a dangerous mission requiring extra firepower, I would go back to my apartment to alter my inventory. The first thing I would do was to log onto my computer and reset the locks to keep out unwanted visitors. When I felt secure in my isolation, I would slide back the wall panel to reveal my weapon lockers. I would consider carefully what kind of gear I would need, and would neatly lay out all of my weapons and ammunition so that they were easily accessible. To avoid unlocking the door on my way out, I would leave through a window and then have to hack my way back in later. Obviously this had no impact on any of the characters in-game, but I didn’t do it for them, did I?

 

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This was one of my favourite parts of the game, and I make no apologies for that.

 

Overall, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a superb game! Despite my initial distaste of the genre, I found that when I became sufficiently skilled at the stealth mechanic I no longer feared discovery but instead revelled in being a deadly spectre. With streamlined abilities, a fresh set of augments, new items, mechanics and characters, Mankind Divided was in improvement on the previous game in every way. I hope they end up making the third game of the trilogy, because you better believe I’d play the hell out of that.