Backlog: Pondering Stories in the Season of Rain Edition

As a native Portlander, I was given no choice in whether or not I liked the rain. In Portland, you either like the rain, or you pretend to like it in order to gain access to the best summers known to man. Rain is cold, rain is persistent, yet the rain back home is rarely overbearing or troublesome. I remember it mostly just because it is -- from October through April, it's an ever-present force.

So as a Portland native overseas in Japan -- a country that finds itself with tsuyu, or the "rainy season" every year in June -- I come to question my relationship with the rain. This is mostly because tsuyu could also be described as something of a monsoon season; it's not quite as bad as Malaysia's spring monsoons (where natives set their watches by the daily deluge), but it's in the vein, and so very different from my beloved hometown's weather. The rain here becomes overbearing, the weather becomes tantamount to a steam bath, and the beautiful sunny spring gives way to a hellish, humid summer that hangs around like the worst kind of houseguest. It's nice to get thunderstorms, but when you're faced with 80°F days that are muggy as all get-out, it makes you miss the slate skies and dreary drizzle of Portland.

I guess with that rainy season coming it's more time for gaming, and more titles for future Backlog consumption. For one reason or another, two of us are contemplating storytelling forms, while Spencer is staring at a new device. Onward to this week's collection. —Doug

Nick

Doug can’t lie — he doesn’t know who this Dark Souls II dude is, or where you meet him, and doesn’t ever want to find out. Best of luck to Nick to staying alive.

Doug can’t lie — he doesn’t know who this Dark Souls II dude is, or where you meet him, and doesn’t ever want to find out. Best of luck to Nick to staying alive.

I’m standing in front of another fog-enshrouded door. I’m beaten and battle-weary, but I’m still alive — and unhollowed. Rather than embrace an inevitable death, I’m pacing the narrow precipice before the arena in Aldia’s Keep, hoping the sigil of another player will appear on the ground. I don’t want to die again. Not here; not now. Not when I’m so close to the end.

I hope someday I’m able to write a book about storytelling techniques in games, because I’d be tempted to smack a massive screenshot from one of the Dark Souls games right on the first page of the chapter about experiential narrative. The series has been denounced as needlessly confounding with its lack of traditional exposition, but you only need to look at the meticulously constructed environment all around you to understand the tone and the message of the story you’re a part of.

Dark Souls II is even more successful than the previous Souls games in fostering a sense of place and significance to the world your character endures. Sure, every game in the series seems to have the same trappings—a ruined world, a fallen king, a handful of half-crazy citizens still living in the area—but each also manages to strike a significantly different tone and sense of place.

I’m probably just a few hours from the finale, which at 36 hours of playtime feels almost brief compared to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. But I have a feeling I’ll stick around for a while; after all, the game’s still relatively new, and I hear there are lots of new things to discover on your second playthrough.

Doug

Snow White and Bigby Wolf, contemplating the newest twist in the story.

Snow White and Bigby Wolf, contemplating the newest twist in the story.

So many people -- including Nick -- talk about Dark Souls in terms of how it’s tough but fair, and that part of the fun is learning to respond to the game systems, the game’s engine. I agree! That’s something I love doing in what I like to call “mechanics games” -- things like racing games, fighting games, sports games, even Civilization V is less about the story than how you play with the tools it gives you. When I want to play a single-player game that focuses on lore and story, I want to enjoy a story -- which is why I’ve found myself so in love with Telltale’s recent games.

I've been playing The Wolf Among Us since the first chapter was released. Tyler and I have had a joint PSN account for a while, so picking this title up made sense. I was in love with our second-best game of 2012, The Walking Dead: Season One, and especially its combination of smart writing and properly weighted gameplay. Tyler, meanwhile, has read part of the Fables comic series that The Wolf Among Us is based on, so he was interested in seeing how the series would be interpreted in game form.

The Wolf Among Us is a very different game from its spiritual successor. Walking Dead: Season One was a slog, a battle, a constant struggle against mankind’s worst instincts and behaviors…and also against zombies. By contrast, Wolf Among Us is a whodunit -- not quite film noir, but definitely a crime mystery that then unfolds to be bigger than any of the characters initially thought. What starts out from a noise complaint leads to a conspiracy that envelopes the entire, neon-soaked corner of 1980s New York City that the Fables inhabit.

For me, Wolf Among Us has been much slower to win me over than The Walking Dead. Sure, I’ve enjoyed playing it, but it’s only been the last two episodes that have really grabbed me. “Wait,” I hear The Internet collectively saying, “I thought Episode 4 sucked!” Well, yes. That seems to be the common opinion out there. However, I hold the less popular opinion that Episode 4 was an effective way to ratchet up the stakes on the way to the grand finale. There are valid complaints -- continuing to introduce even more characters can just muddle the waters; the episodes remain painstakingly short -- but I’m enjoying what I’ve played. I also like the dynamic that this game has, where the player is fighting your basest instincts and trying your damnedest to not lose your cool. Since the game builds on fairy tale tropes, presenting new characters at every turn is much easier than in other titles. And while this was short (my Episode 4 play-through lasted roughly an hour and ten minutes), it had precious little filler.

I’m looking forward to the finale.

Spencer

Spencer is about to dive into Transistor, but first, time to upgrade a phone.

Spencer is about to dive into Transistor, but first, time to upgrade a phone.

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I spent the other night not playing games, but instead spending money I didn't intend to be spending. My Nexus 4 had some trouble with its digitizer, rendering the middle of the screen unusable. With some maneuvering (and signing of papers) I bumped up from 2012’s model to 2013’s -- the Nexus 5.

It’s not strictly gaming-related (though I do play more Dots than I’d care to admit), but I’m continually staggered by the exponential curve upon which smartphones ride. The first iPhone, some seven years ago, had a processor that ran around 400MHz, and 128MB of memory -- roughly equivalent to the PC I built in 1998. This monstrosity that I just picked up, by comparison, has a quad-core 2.26GHz processor and 2GB of memory -- putting it, on paper, about the same as the computer I built around the time of the second iPhone.

Yes, 2008 was a while ago, but I remain astonished nevertheless. Never mind that LTE is faster than even the fastest wired connection I ever used in my hometown. And meanwhile we still can’t handle basic infrastructure, or things like feeding the hungry.

We live in a weird world.

Transistor just came out, and while I've started it, I haven’t had enough time to just sink into playing through. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is totally magical and I've been listening to it on my commutes to and from Redmond.

I’m not sure why it happened, but I bought a copy of Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive VCR Board Game - A Klingon Challenge.

I know.

Yeah. I know.

The thing is, despite all the cheese and 90’s-ness of the game, it’s actually a lot of fun to play. The rules are fast and loose, the game is cooperative in nature but leads to a lot of joke-angry yelling, and it’s pretty easy to learn. Plus, it comes with its own over-acted accompaniment tape, complete with dramatic synthesizer music. This combination makes it, perhaps, the best board game to play when drinking -- indeed, the mechanics are flexible enough that gameplay doesn’t get stalled when one’s understanding of them diminishes.

Come over some time, we’ll have a few and get yelled at by Captain Kavok.