THE ROAD TO TAHITI: LOOKING BACK AT DUTCH VAN DER LINDE


THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR READ DEAD REDEMPTION AND RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2.


 

Hero, villain and tragic figure of Rockstar’s world-renowned western franchise, Dutch Van Der Linde arguably has just as much right to the claim of “main character” of the Red Dead series than John Marston, Arthur Morgan, or that other one from the first game that nobody remembers.

But the funny thing about Dutch is just how much talk he inspires from the series’ fans. Established protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston aren’t two-dimensional by any means, but their needs and desires are largely quite simple – protect people they like, acknowledge that the world is moving on, maybe try to ease up on quite so much senseless killing; a chore list we can all get behind.

Dutch, on the other hand, is a lot harder to pin down, especially when looking at what he actually wants and what might be driving him underneath everything else. We’ve seen him go from a caring, heroic father figure to an unrepentant, self-satisfied murderer, compromising nearly every ideal he claimed to care about from the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2.

It doesn’t even help when you look it what he says, because his general life philosophy seems a little vague. For somebody who never shuts up about freedom, liberty, the hypocrisies of civilisation and the beauty of the “savage utopia”, pulling anything concrete from what he says is a lot harder than you’d think, and that’s definitely by design. Rockstar clearly put a lot of hundred-hour weeks into making Dutch as charismatic as possible, but as time progresses we get the sense that a lot of what he’s talking about might just be hot air, a load of high-minded rhetoric that’s lacking in any real substance.

Maybe this is why he’s also a character defined by contradictions and double-standards. He’s openly cynical about Saint Denis, yet fits in perfectly at one of their illustrious high-society parties, laughing with a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. He’s filled with contempt for civilisation and the lies it tells, yet wears slick, stylish clothes, constantly cons people, carries personalised weapons and practices inspirational speeches when he thinks nobody is looking. And, of course, he kills strangers one moment, yet shows unbridled compassion the next.

So what is at the core of Dutch’s character? Anarchic, uncaring evil? A romantic spirit warped by a world it doesn’t fit into? A poet, a warrior, a leader? No, of course not. These aren’t actual personality traits, these are images Dutch projects to cover up or even hold up the real core of his being: Ego. Sure, anybody who plays either game for more than ten minutes can tell you that Dutch’s sense of self-worth could rival Kim Jong-Un’s, but I suspect it goes deeper than just another character flaw, the root cause of his ideals, his motivations and eventually his downfall.

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A man with weapons, a god-complex, a disinterest in law, utterly devoted followers and a major chip on his shoulder. What could go wrong?

Let’s take a step back. We know that Dutch Van Der Linde was raised largely by his mother but left home at fifteen, forming a friendship with Hosea, a friendship of some sort with Colm O’Driscoll, and developing an ideology (of sorts) based on personal freedom and unconstrained anarchy. Later on he split from O’Driscoll after some bloodshed, and formed his own gang, placing himself at its centre and framing it around the aforementioned ideology. There’s clearly something of the religious cult leader about him, talking about a promised land – Tahiti, or maybe Australia – as well as giving passionate speeches that sound good until you start thinking about them. And of course, constantly telling his followers and friends to “have faith.” Dutch says that one so often it would be on his business cards if he had them.

But honestly, I suspect that Dutch is working backwards to feed his sense of self-worth. The paradise that Dutch pushes often has a worrisome air of “survival of the fittest” about it, but then again, why would that be a problem to him? He’s charming, handsome, intelligent, surprisingly educated, an expert fighter and master gunslinger. In a world where power is rewarded – such as the brutal chaos of the Wild West – Dutch reaps the rewards more than anybody. No wonder he developed all that pride. He’s practically the gold standard for Western outlaw heroics, and the people around him noticed that.

Problem is, the encroaching civilisation doesn’t work that way. As the West was slowly tamed, Dutch saw a vision of America coming where all men became quiet cogs in a grand, grey machine, and this terrified and revolted him. If he was made to be like everybody, he would suddenly be a nobody, the worst thing possible for a man like him.

So he builds up the Van Der Linde gang, with a sexy Robin Hood image and non-specific utopian ideals, dedicated to showing up the hypocrisies and failings of this new America. Obviously he’s the protagonist of this story. His supporting cast embodies the forgotten people, those who suffer from prejudice or never had the chance to make anything of themselves. Every job they pull is a strike against the establishment, and it adds to his infamous reputation…

… And then it all starts to come slowly crashing down around his ears as events makes it clear that however hard Dutch pushes, America can push back even harder. Dutch’s original goal seems to be to hit a bunch of valuable targets representing the establishment – banks, trains, corporations, oil wells, big business and those damned fat cats, etc – before making off with these riches to some distant land and setting up their own paradise, designed specifically to be this new America’s opposite. Lush, primal, simple, free, a final spit in the eye of Uncle Sam.

It won’t work. Dutch’s thinking is innately old-school and he wants to win on those terms, but the rules have changed and now he’s struggling to keep up. It’s implied that in the old days that when the heat got too much you could just keep going westward, running past the frontier into the wilderness, but that doesn’t work when civilisation stretches from one coast to the other. It’s not just a few dusty sheriffs pinning ten dollar bounties on the jailhouse wall, now it’s organised law enforcement and federal agents with money, manpower, and a jurisdiction that spans the whole country. Robberies and heists become harder to pull off, and even when they succeed, like the train robbery early on, they have lasting consequences that they can’t easily escape. The law is everywhere.

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Dutch stands with his friends – but also a little in front of them.

All these things make Dutch feel small and insignificant, which is why the few victories he can claim – an escape from a botched job, a piece of untouched countryside to settle in, or manipulating a group of Native Americans to attack the army later on – all of these things make him feel like he has a chance of winning, and give him the satisfaction of damaging his enemy, whether it actually helps his gang or not. They make him feel big, but the failures far outweigh the successes, and the pressure starts to mount on him, psychologically and socially.

So what we have here is a man who has convinced himself that he can win an impossible fight and has staked his self-worth on the outcome, as well as the lives of about twenty people who are all starting to notice that he’s not as infallible as they thought. When he keeps barking at them all to have faith, it’s a sign that his ego is taking a pounding and he just wants them to go back to the blind obedience they always had. He insists that the gang’s troubles aren’t his fault, it’s their fault for doubting him, because how could he ever put a foot wrong? If they could just believe in him as a saviour again, this would all start going back to how it should.

It won’t, obviously. Dutch soon begins to crack under the strain, especially after the heist at Saint Denis and Hosea’s death, and starts shedding his principles as dead weight, killing innocent people and beginning to look at his friends with distrust and resentment. But at the same time, he needs them, because if they won’t love him and call him their saviour, what’s been the point of all this? It’d be another failure for the list.

Compromising his ethics one after the other, Dutch doesn’t so much change as he is reduced down to the simplest version of himself: an egomaniac who wants to be lionised by the world, and eager to hurt the civilised part of it that makes him feel small and insignificant. He’s not entirely without morality, at least not yet, but it’s only a matter of time and the few good urges he has left feel more like a disguise than a real part of his being.

Which brings us to Micah, the moustachioed menace who purrs poison into Dutch’s ear and pushes him to more dangerous extremes than ever. Had Micah been acting this way to anybody else, Dutch would’ve likely seen him for the self-serving monster that he is, but flattery gets you a lot when it comes to a man who seems to need praise more than oxygen. Micah is certainly more cunning than people give him credit for, recognising the god-complex inside Dutch where Hosea and Arthur either don’t see it or don’t want to, and he uses this to manipulate him, telling him that every dark impulse he has is the right one. He feeds Dutch’s ego to bursting point, telling him the thing he wants to hear most: anybody who disagrees with you is wrong, and everything you say is right, simply because it was YOU that said it. Sure, Dutch probably knows on some level that this is bullshit, but admitting that would mean cutting his last lifeline for validation. Not only that, but the little rat is encouraging his pointless war with Modern America, making it Dutch’s highest priority. But while Dutch does it for deep-seated psychological reasons and a paper-thin ideology, Micah simply wants to make money and indulge his love of killing.

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Dutch’s desperation drives him to extremes, which only makes his many failures sting all the more.

The big turning point is when Dutch refuses to rescue John Marston from prison, seemingly for no reason. It’s surprising to say the least, because this should be exactly what Dutch would normally want, right? A dynamic outlaw adventure that tweaks the nose of Johnny Law, sends ripples out across the State and cements their ideals of brotherhood and unity. But instead, Dutch retreats back from the opportunity, uncertain and tentative, telling them to wait before they do anything, that he has to think of a plan first.

We never get a firm explanation as to why Dutch keeps dragging his feet here, especially when he was so gung-ho about reuniting the gang in the face of the early Blackwater debacle. Who knows, maybe Dutch was beginning to suspect John was a traitor and wanted him to suffer as revenge. Maybe Dutch wanted John to die so that the gang would rally in anger and see the law as Dutch does. Maybe he really was trying to come up with that perfect plan, and just needed a little more time to make it.

Perhaps it’s all of these, or none of these. Nonetheless, I suspect that the main reason was that Dutch had begun to suspect he wasn’t going to win this one, and the thought of losing yet again was terrifying to his ego. Problem is, it’s also humiliating to see his gang shouting at him to do something, so he can’t win either way. He’s sold himself for decades as “the guy with the plan,” but now he has no plans, his stock as a leader is in freefall, and law is closing around them. So when Arthur and Sadie go behind his back and rescue John anyway, it’s a sign that they’ve lost respect for his leadership – and boy, does that just ruffle his soul patch, especially coming from Arthur, now his oldest living friend. In his mind, it’s the ultimate betrayal.

And of course this leads to Dutch abandoning Arthur to his death during the raid on the oil fields,  followed by the awkward ride back home when Arthur ends up surviving. Dutch is being forced to choose again and again which matters to him more – his comrades, or his pride-fuelled vendetta, and he keeps picking the second option, pushed on by Micah, struggling to square in his own head the clear, depressing difference between what he started as and what he’s become.

It’s all too much by the end. Dutch sees a suit-and-tie-wearing world rallied against him, the corruption beginning to touch even his oldest friends. He makes further trouble by shooting Leviticus Cornwall, a pointless, gleeful strike against the fat cats that only makes their situation worse. Finally the gang implodes in a heady mess of blood, gunpowder and tuberculosis, and Dutch vanishes into hiding, at least until John, Charles and Sadie go hunting for Micah and discover that he and Dutch are still working together. Micah takes Sadie hostage, the Mexican stand-off kicks in, John appeals to Dutch’s long-dead nobility, and in a moment of shock, witnesses his former mentor turn on Micah and shoot him in the chest, saving Sadie’s life.

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High ideals are thrown away for base feelings and urges, but Dutch is determined not to realise this, and that the mangoes of Tahiti are getting further and further away.

This might sound like a heroic thing to do, and it largely is, but it’s worth reminding everybody that Dutch has been riding with Micah for a while, a man who had been reportedly slaughtering families without a problem. In fact, I suspect that Dutch killing Micah is less about the heroic angle as it is about something Micah says moments before the event. When John accuses him of murdering Arthur, Micah simply scoffs and says “it’s a new century!”

It’s the worst thing he could have said. Dutch sees Micah for what he is, sees how low he’s fallen to be working with somebody like that, and sees a person holding an injured woman hostage for his own ends, all while justifying his actions because of the march of modernity. Nothing could’ve been more abhorrent to the younger Dutch, and so he blows a hole in Micah’s torso before leaving the Blackwater fortune to his former friends, a last act of heroism before we see him again in Red Dead Redemption.

Sadly, several years later, Dutch’s honour meter has taken a turn towards the red, murdering innocents without a thought and tormenting John for fun. There’s even a moment in which Dutch holds a woman hostage at gunpoint, just like Micah did. He uses a modern semi-automatic pistol, a gatling gun and a typewriter without recognising or caring about the irony of it all. He’s become the thing he hated the most, and he can’t even see it.

John nearly gets to live out the true American dream – hunting down and murdering your boss – only for Dutch to trump him at the end by throwing himself off a cliff and committing suicide, though not before a little gunpoint monologue (boy, Rockstar loves having its characters speechify with a pistol shoved up their nose) in which the old man comes the closest he’s ever been to seeing the truth of himself and his pointless, painful predicament.

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“We can’t always fight nature, John. We can’t fight change. We can’t fight gravity. We can’t fight nothing. My whole life, John, all I ever did was fight. But I can’t give up neither. I can’t fight my own nature. That’s the paradox, John. You see? Our time has passed.”

In the heyday of the Wild West, Dutch Van Der Linde was a leader, fighter and rogue. And under that heady spell, thought he could take on the might of decadent, civilised conformity and win, then make his way somewhere truly free with pockets full of money and friends beside him.

He couldn’t. Nobody could. And the more he failed, the angrier he got. He made compromise after compromise, leaving behind his ideals, his friends, his morality and finally his sanity, certain that he could win next time, that a legion of bowler-hatted bureaucrats couldn’t hold him down forever, that he’d become the hero of the West he knew he was. That delusion was the last thing he let go of, moments before he took his own life rather than be captured and letting the government beat him one last time. What Dutch wanted never really changed, but a long time ago he decided he’d rather be victorious than be noble, the true tragedy of his character. His anger came from fear, his heroism came from self-obsession, and his vision, tragically enough, came from delusion.

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GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 2: “PHALANX”

Last time we looked at the endearingly icy antagonist of Arkham City, “Mister Freeze,” and after several hundred words deduced that boss fights – and stay with me on this one – should generally be a bit harder than the bits of the game that aren’t boss fights.

I know, I know, it’s certainly bold new thinking, but what made Monsieur Gel work so well was the fact that he was testing every aspect of the player’s skills up until then. In a game split evenly around reaction-brawler combat and stealth, Freezey is the enemy who demands perfection in the latter of those two, as well as an organic understanding of how to use all the tools you’ve acquired.

But now we’re leaping back in time by half a decade and a whole console generation to a game beloved in indie circles, to the point where it’s recently gotten a shiny new re-release to bleed pennies out of all the people who bought it the first time, but don’t get to play it on the new, (allegedly) superior consoles. That’s progress, apparently.

 

“PHALANX/COLOSSUS 13/THE SNAKE,” SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS

Replaying Shadow of the Colossus recently, what struck me was how many of the Colossi frankly seem to be struggling to live up to the promise offered by the first few you encounter – that promise of big, epic struggles between towering monstrosities and an anime pretty-boy in a poncho, who hangs from their pubic hair and hacks diligently at their exposed ‘nads.

You can certainly tell which Colossi feel more like gimmicks than fleshed-out ideas: Buffalo Bill and his baffling pyrophobia, Crash Thompson and his penchant for headbutting pillars into perfect locations, or Tooth-Temple Terry pootling around his lake until you steer him into a wall. They’re not bad, these fights, they’re just a little… token, dropping in quality because of what they’re not, rather than what they are.

But then there’s the thirteenth Colossus, referred to as “Phalanx,” or sometimes as “the Snake.” Neither term does it proper justice. Show up at the vast stretch of bleached desert sands to the North-West of Dormin’s Temple, and there’ll be a moment of confused searching before the ground begins to rumble and nearly six hundred feet of flying tapeworm explodes out of the sand, dwarfing even the huge monsters you’ve seen so far and making you feel like something barely worthy of notice as it begins to fly in wide, looping patterns, supported on giant, organic balloons of gas.

Uh… now what?

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

A bit of everything, largely. To begin with, you can’t even get up to reach Phalanx as he circles lazily through the air, and must engage in a bit of precision shooting with your bow, trying to pierce the three air sacs that keep him at his lofty altitude. This done, he’ll descend to the point where the tips of his sixty-foot fins are dragging through the sand, and this is probably the best moment of the fight, as you charge alongside him on horseback, trying to keep pace, trying to keep an eye out for obstacles, trying not to freak out at the size of this thing, and must organically pick a moment to throw yourself at the fin and cling on for dear life before his airbags refill and he begins to raise back up into the stratosphere. Hope you don’t mind heights.

And suddenly, you’re higher than most birds can fly, gawping over the edge of oblivion as you pull yourself up onto his broad, fur-flecked back, and try to hold on as you pull yourself against the wind currents to his three weak spots and stab furiously at them in an attempt to bring this beast down. He’ll try and shake you off, even dropping back down into the sand to get rid of you if you take too long, which means you’ll have to try and pull this off again. Sounds good to me.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

What, weren’t you listening? This is a huge fight that actually feels like both of you are doing your utmost to get rid of the other, and has a sense of scale and majesty that few other games can match. It’s not just big, it’s… well, colossal.

Heck, not only that, but nothing here is scripted. Yeah, there’s an order to how you need to do things, but the way you go about it is up to you, no quick-time events or anything. Start by doing a bit of sharpshooting with only your own skills to rely on, ride on Aggro alongside this runaway train of a beast, literally stand on the horse’s back to leap at Phalanx’s fin (desperately trying not to miss), then pull yourself up to his body proper and crawl around his lengthy frame at your leisure, hunting down the magical equivalent of jugular veins and carving them up royal. It’s big, and it’s epic, and it feels like you’re the one doing it, not just the game setting you up for this moment disingenuously like it’s a fairground ride at Disneyland. And when Phalanx barrel-rolls through the air to shake you off, hanging upside down off his back hair by one hand as your feet drag through the clouds feels like an untouchable adrenaline high.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

If I had to object, I might say that the fight is perhaps a smidge too easy and could afford to be little more punishing when you do something stupid. Traditionally, once you’re on a colossus, the big threat is running out of stamina and losing your grip, but at this point in the game you’ve got a stamina bar as long as Das Boot and playing with even a modicum of care should see you getting rid of at least two of Phalanx’s weak points before he finally just throws himself back into the dirt for a guaranteed breather.

Not to mention that if you do fall off his back before then, the end result is surprisingly tame, with our prepubescent protagonist not even losing half of his health as he drops though the air and lands face down in sun-scorched rocks and sand. Hell, it’s not long before you realise that Phalanx never actually attacks you, just trying to shake you off his back after you stab him one too many times, so there’d be odd moments of disconnect where I’d look up at this thing soaring overhead after I just hacked half the blood out of it, still apparently unconcerned by the aggressive little microbe shooting arrows up at it and screaming angry, Ico-brand non-language.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

That huge-scale stuff has to be handled carefully, and never to the player’s detriment, putting the cinematic too far forward. I admit, running around all over the giant figures in the God of War series never really did much for me, because everything about it felt scripted and planned in advance. Not to mention that Kratos’ absurd power didn’t make it feel like that much of a fight to begin with, so who cares about the distinction in size?

But Team Ico designs Phalanx like some strange, alien airship, something so big that it can hurt you by accident, and placing it in an environment large enough that you keep forgetting how huge this thing is until you ride close to it. Then moving around on its back feels real, roughly speaking, with everything going towards making the battle feel plausible and terrifying in scope. The game doesn’t give you anything, you have to claim it all for yourself, and that’s far, far more satisfying.

 

NEXT TIME: “I’ve done everything this world has to offer. I’ve read every book. I’ve burned every book. I’ve won every game. I’ve lost every game. I’ve appeased everyone. I’ve killed everyone.

“Sets of numbers… Lines of dialog… I’ve seen them all.”

GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 1: “MISTER FREEZE”

Few video game traditions go as far back as the noble boss fight. From the valiant pursuit of a single pixelated barrel-slinging, kidnapper ape in the original Donkey Kong, to the cinematic destruction of cosmic beings and the gods themselves in the Bayonetta series, half the games we remember, we remember for their climatic showdowns.

That being said, a boss fight is no guarantee of excitement, nor of satisfaction. A lot of modern games are happy to condense what should feel like an epic confrontation down to a series of quick time events, like the pirate slavery goon squad leaders in Far Cry 3, or perhaps decide to test something totally illogical, like making the Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls a platforming boss. Or what about Fable II, in which you spend the whole game trying to get to your hated nemesis, only to press one button and unceremoniously blow a hole in his head ten minutes from the end, never to be mentioned again?

So bearing that in mind, over the next week or so we’re going to be going over five great boss fights from gaming history, what made them work, what they have to teach us, and where they might just have fumbled too. And to begin with, we’ll begin with something a little…

Hold on, were there any ice puns that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t use up?

 

“MISTER FREEZE,” BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY

Nobody would initially look to the Arkham series for examples of good boss fights. Out of the whole four games and all that DLC, I think I recall only one worth mentioning, maybe two if you count the Scarecrow sections (which I do think are slightly over-praised as a whole).

That boss fight is, of course, the confrontation with frosty foe Mister Freeze, taking place midway through the second game. After an uneasy alliance between him and Batman collapses with all the predictability of the Statue of Liberty in a disaster movie, Freeze seals the doorways with ice and decides to clip this bothersome Bat’s wings. Acting fast, the caped Crusader retreats into the shadows – and the game is suddenly on.

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

This is one of those fights that actually feels like you’re doing the Batman shtick, because Freezey isn’t going to just go down with a sturdy punch to the face. The guy’s surrounded by more metal than the editor of Decibel magazine, and the only thing apparently bigger than all that power armour is the ice-powered proton pack he’s carrying around with him.

So the key is to slink around, staying stealthy, and using all kinds of special tricks to slowly compromise Freeze’s suit until it’s worn down to the point where you can drive your fist through his helmet and take time showing him the true meaning of the phrase “cold snap.” But Victor isn’t exactly going to go along with that, and what makes him genuinely intimidating is the fact that every time you use one of your tactics, he does something to ensure it can’t be used happen again. Leapt up at him through a floor vent? He seals it shut when he realises what’s happening. Power up a generator to mess with his electronics? He’ll break it afterwards. Tried sneaking up behind him? He turns on a jetpack to burn you if you try it again. No gimmick will work twice, so you’d better be playing it smart, and playing it very, very careful.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

Oh, this is good for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, you’re forced to Batman as well as a Batman can. This is the make-or-break moment, where your cunning is suddenly put against an AI who learns from your actions, and it feels tense and exciting in a way that we haven’t encountered since Killer Croc in the first game, and certainly not as well.

In fact, considering you’re usually against thugs who pose about as much threat to you individually as a stale Hobnob, the single figure of Freeze suddenly throws that sense of superiority off-balance, making you feel like you’re the one being hunted. He can follow the warm footprints you leave behind, devastate your health bar in a couple of shots, and even getting close to him feels nerve-wracking, as he scans for a hint of bodily warmth or fires off drones to pinpoint your location. Not to mention the fact that his emotionless, artificial voice and glowing red goggles beneath the misted helmet make him startlingly creepy as an antagonist, even in a series that was usually pretty good at that sort of thing to begin with.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

As crazy as it sounds, I think a bigger environment with some more elements at play wouldn’t have gone amiss, nor would I have objected to seeing him come back in a different location with new tricks later on, considering he’s a great part of the game that’s finished with halfway through the second act.

Also, taking stock of Freeze’s tricks does take a while, but once you’ve worked out everything in your arsenal, he’s not as difficult as you’d think to take him out. The warm footprints can even be used to lure him around into certain traps, and he’s slow enough and loud enough that a clever player can avoid being caught without using their detective vision. Ideally, this would be the moment in which he brings in more drones or throws something new at you, but that never really happens. It’s not so much an error in the fight as the unused potential to be even better.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

A boss fight is not only some culmination of spectacle or the chance to try out a gimmick, it’s the moment where the player’s skills are truly put under the magnifying glass and milked for all they’re worth. There’s so many times where a boss doesn’t seem measurably much more difficult than their collected minions, and you wonder A) how they got to be the boss in the first place, and B) where on earth the challenge is supposed to be if not here.

But Freeze is most certainly the grand exam for the stealth element of the game, testing the player by forcing them to try out every pouch in their utility belt, not to mention stopping them from using the same tricks over and over. He pushes you in every respect, surely the true point of a boss fight?

Well, depends who you ask. I know some games that would Pokemon X. Er, I mean, that would disagree.

 

NEXT TIME: Big, bad and beaky.

SWITCH, PLEASE!

So it turns out that the long-anticipated Nintendo NX console has done a Project Natal on us and changed its name. It’s the Nintendo Switch now, and it was formally announced today with a preview trailer reminiscent of one of those Gap store commercials, the kind that shows a lot of diverse, trendy, non-threatening people playing the game in areas that are statistically proven to be considered cool. Right on, Nintendo. Groovy, baby.

So what is this new creation on offer from March next year? Well, it’s a console… Sort of. And it’s a handheld… Sort of. And it plays games from five years ago… Sort of. Because is it just me, or did Skyrim look a bit more pixelly and unresponsive than I remember it being?

I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings on this one. Nintendo never seem to remember that trying to master two things at once means you only end up with something that’s compromised in both aspects. That’s why the Wii U was a handheld device, but only assuming you never felt like leaving the house or playing with a decent screen. And the 3DS was also a handheld device, again making assumptions that your hands were shaped like Doctor Claw’s and you still didn’t want a decent screen. This new device is apparently a hybrid console. I’ve seen hybrids before, you know. I saw a liger on TV once when I was a kid. It was completely infertile, rather sickly and not expected to live very long. Pardon me for not being filled with optimism for this hybrid, either.

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This is the new Nintendo Switch… At least until it suddenly looks like something else.

But with all those developers allegedly behind it, the game library could be pretty tasty. I’m sure the Switch’s battery will agree with me, carrying on that noble Nintendo tradition of gorging itself on energy and lasting the length of the average nose blowing before it needs a recharge. The Wii U controller can’t even maintain four hours of Earthbound from 1994, so I’m a little skeptical about how this new thing will deal with the cutting edge of mainstream gameplay (or rather cutting-edge by Nintendo’s standards, which means some cartooney, non-hardware intensive stuff and a game from half a decade ago).

The big question is whether the third-party support will be enough. Nintendo have often had problems with such relationships, such as demanding they capitulate to unconventional hardware restraints or gimmicks, but the Switch doesn’t appear to have a motion controller or muffin dispenser thrown into the mix, so it should be a little more cooperative to those poor, bullied designers. Apparently there’s a touchscreen in there somewhere, but ideally that should be an optional extra that will only be utilised IF THE THIRD-PARTY CREATORS WANT TO, NINTENDO. After all, the public are so used to touchscreens by now that I doubt it’ll even be considered a selling point. Nintendo might as well try and sell us on the exterior being made out of plastic – it’s just not worth the effort.

The console’s main promotional feature seems to be versatility and adaptability. In the trailer we see people playing it on a TV, on a plane, in a car, in a skate park, whilst ignoring a dog, whilst ignoring an attractive girl, whilst ignoring their friends at a party, and we see the inevitable pathetic capitulation to eSports that must now hound every major gaming product like a sickly relative demanding you bring them more soup, ‘ere they cut you mercilessly from their last Will and Testament. Am I the only person who still doesn’t give a damn about people I don’t know playing games I have no stake in? And am I also the only one who noticed that the crowd for that eSports tournament looked a little… CGI-ish? I’m not saying I’m one hundred percent certain that they’re fake, only that they might want to stop performing the same jerky movements over and over if they want to leave the uncanny valley anytime soon.

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Yep, that certainly looks like a man who’s entranced by what he’s seeing, and not a low-cost actor/model hungrily waiting for a paycheck that’s being dangled over him.

But the big new idea is that the Switch can, rather suitably enough, switch forms. There’s at least five different configurations for this new contraption, including a handheld mode, a TV-slot thing, dual controllers like you’d get with VR tech and a little prop to stand the device up whilst you play.

And I won’t even complain about this aspect. Seriously, none of this is a bad thing. It’s not very exciting and I know that as long as one of the configurations works fine for me I can safely ignore the others, but as long as it doesn’t have a drawback I can’t really see a reason to be sniffy about this news.

Except for this bit – why is Nintendo treating this rather boring feature like their ultimate draw card? In the trailer the games themselves seemed secondary to the promotion of the hardware, with the audience only capturing glimpses of Zelda, Mario and the aforementioned Skyrim. I can’t help but wonder about all the many, many things I’m not seeing, because I honestly don’t care much about Switches’ switchin’ power. That’s just a functional utility tool to allow me to play the games, but you’re not showing me any of those!

And speaking of, I must ask what’s going to happen when it comes to backwards compatibility? The hybrid nature still leaves us confused as to whether this is more of a successor to the 3DS or the Wii U, but the Switch seems to be utilising cartridges more similar to the former, which is annoying to hear if it’s only going to run 3DS games. Because the 3DS library was (and is) pretty rubbish, but there’s still a few niceties gathered around the skirts of the Wii U. The opportunity to play Wind Waker on long plane trips sounds superb, but the opportunity to play MGS3 and Pokémon X does not. Of course, that’s assuming we’re given backwards compatibility at all, which given the current state of the industry seems unlikely. After all, everybody knows that consumers come last in the ridiculous pecking order. We’re just the ugly sods who have to spend the money.

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I genuinely laughed at how the guy on the far right is desperately trying to ignore him playing on that thing. You’re not fooling anyone, Dave.

The online response seems to imply that I’m the only one who feels iffy about this thing. I admit that there isn’t a lot of info to go on yet, but I still feel uncomfortable about it nonetheless. Because my fundamental question, maintained throughout all of this unbridled, unhealthy hype, is this – how is the Switch better than any of the consoles, computers, handhelds, hybrids, tablets, phones and microwave ovens that I own already? It’s not outmatching them in terms of hardware or choice of games, because my laptop runs far superior tech, holds Steam within its mighty clutches and also gives me a lot more options, such as the capacity to write this article and watch porn simultaneously. And if the Switch is selling itself on how easy it is to use, I do already own a smartphone that puts that aspect to shame, much like everyone else on the planet and their dog does.

So that leaves exclusives, which should be disregarded because a) exclusive titles are a nasty, anti-consumer practice, and b) I’m still not sure that Nintendo won’t abuse its third-party developers again and lose the right to all the good exclusives. I do have a memory, Nintendo. Erasing backward compatibility ain’t going to change that, despite everyone’s best efforts.

It should be maintained that this is all first-glance stuff, with very few details to go on at this point. Perhaps future knowledge will make me think more highly of it, but for now I’m approaching with a sense of caution. And with the teaser trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 coming out today, we’re all pretty much in the dark about everything that’s going on, but at least we can ensure that the latter will allow us to shoot buffalo. Something tells me that Mario won’t have the stones for that one.

You can find the Nintendo Switch Teaser Trailer here.

WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE DISHONORED FRANCHISE?

Dishonored (which I will always maintain is spelt wrong, America) was one of those games which has received both too much and too little praise. This first-person stealth game was a critical darling upon release in 2012, achieving a stream of awards and much slobber from the online websites, even BEFORE most of them had been paid to like it.

And though audiences were positive and no real complaints were raised, the game faded in the minds of the public, likely due to the lack of multiplayer, the focus on a complex setting, a sense of genuine challenge and the fact that no gender controversies were made about it. These are all things that make it work in my mind, but that’s me – always bucking the trends to look cool. And people say critics don’t represent the people! To that I say: of course not, who the hell would want to? In the ancient Caddyshack war of Snobs versus Slobs, I stand firmly with Ted Knight against the invading forces of Rodney Dangerfield.

But I’m getting off-message. Dishonored was a good (if somewhat flawed) game, and with a sequel scheduled for release in November, I took it upon myself to consider how a potential follow-up might work. The answer? Well, read on, you lazy goose. I’m not going to do all the work for you.


STORY

Let’s consider things in reverse to what we did for Zelda (where we decided story should inform gameplay), because here we actually do have an excellent template for what a Dishonored sequel should be like: the Boyle Masquarade Ball in the first game. The absolute highlight of the whole affair, and a good blend of gameplay, world-building, organic side-quests, physical and social stealth with multiple solutions to a single problem: how do we work out which of the creepy women in wolf masks is our target, and how do we guarantee that she’s never seen again after this night?

And one of the things that made that mission work was that it was when the game suddenly had a lot more character. Thus, I would make our hero something very different to the silent, staring Corvo Attano in the first game. In this instalment the protagonist (we’ll call him Monty, purely because I like the name), is a charming raconteur and daring wit, the cream of high society… And also an accomplished cat burglar, going under the suitably thrilling name of “The Fox” when it comes to the popular press.

Bam. A solid set-up for a stealth game (yes, I know it’s similar to Thief, but there hasn’t been a good Thief game for ages, so I’mma take it), with bona ride reasons why our hero can sneak around at a professional level, not to mention why he’s breaking into places right from the start. When he’s seen trespassing, his mask covers his face and identity, and when he’s hiding in plain sight, he takes off that mask, and just goes around looking innocent and putting up a façade of endearing buffoonery. Basically, he’s a combination of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Batman, with all the delightful fun that implies.

Then we need some inciting incident, after a couple of tutorial missions where we just pinch large diamonds and so on. To my mind, two things would happen in tandem – Monty would steal something that’s much more valuable and important than he immediately realises, and simultaneously be visited by the ghost of Edward Cullen (aka, the Outsider), to be given a stack of magic powers to do with as he wishes.

And everything then happens at once. Monty makes a few selfish decisions regarding the mysterious item (i.e., keeping the damn thing), resulting in a friend of his being hurt/killed by somebody who’s intent on taking it back. Monty decides he’s not going to stand for that, and works to discover the true purpose of his new toy whilst looking to get revenge on the faction that seeks to take it from him, a la The Count Of Monte Cristo. Oh, did you see what I did there?

As he does so, he finds that he’s being pursued by a deadly assassin that is more reminiscent of Daud and Corvo from the previous game, a symbol of Dunwall’s grim past that needs to be overcome and left there, in favour of the lighter, more merciful approach that Monty embodies. Along this journey he’ll come to understand that his actions have consequences and that he must learn to think about others… But that doesn’t mean he can’t pinch a couple of rare baubles from blustering nobles now and then. Got to have some fun, right?


SETTING

This one is tricky. Partly because Arkane Studios did such a good job of crafting the city of Dunwall the first time around, that it’s hard to think of specific areas where it can be improved. I know that the main characters in the first game seemed to lack the depth and substance of the world they lived in, but that’s one of those things that you can assume gets fixed for this one, like bringing your car in for a tire change and assuming that the tire will actually be attached to the car when you leave.

The real problem here is one of tone. Corvo’s grim saga of betrayal, revenge and revolution was a good fit for a city where everything seemed to be going wrong on an hourly basis, including an attack of zombie plague and a militant fascistic movement taking people’s liberties like one takes Twiglets from the bowl.

But the initial cheerfulness of The Fox’s life feels like we’re in a far lighter story, especially considering his own attitude. And whilst I suppose the city wouldn’t have to be Dunwall, it does feel cheap to move away from it purely for that reason.

So we’ll stick with the same city, but we’ll approach it in a time of relative prosperity. It’s not perfect – one of the likely themes considered would be the disparity of the poor versus the wealthy – but it’s doing well enough and doesn’t seem to need immediate saving from anything at the time. It’s like Gotham City between issues of Batman, whereas Dunwall previously felt like Gotham City in the third act of a major Batman arc – namely, completely buggered to hell. We navigate bustling cobblestone roads, cane tapping cheerfully as we glide between street urchins and market vendors. Then, when nobody’s looking, we duck into an alleyway, put on the mask of The Fox…


STEALTH AND COMBAT

… And the challenge begins anew! First of all, I should urge that I like the idea of Monty being a legitimate inventor, crafting strange and wonderful devices to help him accomplish his burglaries. To my mind he would make a good descendant of Piero, the brilliant but uncomfortable man in the first game – maybe a grandson? Ah, doesn’t matter too much.

So we have a combination of gadgets, black magic and natural agility working to ensure that the bad guys get bonked, the jewels get jacked and the guards stay unguarded. And the next priority is to clearly categorise these abilities and their purposes.

I’m thinking that black magic and Outsider powers should relate to mobility and interaction with the environment, and be the cornerstone of “I’m stealthing around, and I’m staying that way.” We keep the teleport “blink” power and X-Ray vision because they’re awesome, but we also add powers like levitating objects, sealing certain doors closed, making unconscious bodies invisible and triggering sounds at a distance to distract people.

By the way, hiding bodies is now more important than ever. For Monty is a thief, not a killer, and he does NOT leave a bloody trail behind him. He knows how to use his reinforced cane for self-defence and he knocks people unconscious when he has to, but he doesn’t skewer them like kebabs and doesn’t summon hordes of rats to eat them alive. This might seem discordant after the potentially apocalyptic death count of the first game, but even then you were subtly praised for staying your hand and utilising non-lethal approaches. Besides, this is a new age for Dunwall, and moving past the darkness of what it once was is a key element of the story here. It’s also undeniable that Monty would seem slightly twisted if he kept a sense of humour alongside his blood-stained dagger. Uncharted proved that the lovable hero becomes a lot less lovable when he starts breaking necks like a turkey farmer approaching Thanksgiving.

So you do have to be sure that nobody’s going to find the sleeping guards, because you can’t just turn them into dust when you’ve finished hacking them pieces this time. And It’s going to be harder than ever to keep them hidden, because one very valid criticism of the first game was that the guards were incredibly easy to navigate. They’d walk across a room, pick their nose for a bit, then walk back to where they were and repeat the whole process. No chance of being surprised by somebody taking a long circuitous route, which is usually where the average stealth game is at its most interesting – having to improvise in a heartbeat.

Beyond that, the original game doesn’t need excessive revitalising. The stealth worked then, still works now, and is made more enjoyable by the scope of options given to you. Admittedly, I would like to see more of a use to the environment other than platforming. Maybe killing the lights by finding switches in the basement, or sneaking up behind goons to put sleeping powder in their hip flasks. But Dishonored did that sort of thing fine, so I won’t say that it needs fixing, only emphasising the strong points. And then there’s something that does not need emphasising at all.


COMBAT

Look, I know Dishonored 1 proudly tells you to play it your way, but that leads to a lack of focus and a fundamental problem: if I’m just trying to get to the end of the game without much thought to specific tactics, why wouldn’t I just load up my pistol and grenades (something most enemies drop after being murdered), and hack through everybody who comes into my sight line? Dishonored’s swashbuckling was fun, but ultimately easier to do than sneaking if you were happy to go lethal, especially when certain powers only had capacity for loud, lethal means.

Here that doesn’t fly anymore. I said The Fox was a good fighter, but there’s a reason he doesn’t charge in and turn a burglary into a robbery – the odds of survival rapidly diminish as more enemies get involved. Fighting one dude? Yeah, should be fine as long as he’s not a real expert. Two guys? Bit tricky, but not terrible. Three? Well, now things are getting problematic.

This is where the gadgets and toys come into play – they provide means to escape or to end combat quickly when somebody advances on you with a sword. Tranquilliser darts, smoke bombs, flashbangs, and the steel walking cane for when you need to parry a cutlass strike or smack somebody in the chops. Maybe add some fun toys to that roster, like rope traps that’ll drag an unsuspecting thug into the air, but on the whole your various gadgets are to be used in the event of an emergency.

The reason for this is that combat is going to be a genuine problem, something that you really might not survive, with reinforcements charging in all the time to back up their friend. Anybody would call for back-up after being attacked by a man with a large walking stick and a selection of steampunk James Bond gadgets.


CHOICE

And now we come to the heart of the matter. Dishonored’s original choice system doesn’t really work, for a number of reasons. The deceit of “play it your way” means either taking the easy, evil option or the difficult, more merciful path, and that in itself is a problem. It’s well recognised at this point that most “evil endings” equate to a weak-willed game over screen, feeling ultimately cheap and unrewarding after hours spent striving to accomplish something.

But for this game we’ve shifted the focus more firmly onto stealth, and removed the option to slit the throats of people who treat you with disdain. And whilst I’m happy to keep a reactive gameplay experience, it can no longer be to who you kill and who you spare.

No, the game should be altered by your methodology and approach, something the original did do right to a certain degree. Maybe you find the location of a target or rare item by conversing with the chatterboxes in a crowd, or maybe you break into a guard’s office to see where the hired goons seem to have been assigned to, and peak in through the windows to see what’s inside. The approaches you take will affect future missions, with those who decipher your tactics taking steps to prevent them, and those who are on your side trying to support you accordingly. If you kill the power to a building so that you might blend into the shadows, the next one you go for will have the fuse box under lock and key, because they heard about what you’re up to, you rogue. Of course, if you really work hard and take extra risks, you could conceal your approach after everything, and get to use it with hindrance again next time.

The social stuff also has a good template for how to converse and persuade others – the dialogue minigame in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of the best means of approaching persuasion in video game history. It would be easy to reimagine reading people as an Outsider power, and the rather terrifying Heart from the first game would actually have a use in the secrets it told you.


CONCLUSION

Like Zelda, Dishonored is a good game that doesn’t need a complete overhaul, just recognition of what work and what doesn’t. But whereas Zelda’s problem comes from a distinct reluctance to change or innovate for the better, Dishonored is too young a series to be guilty of that. What it needs is urging on for the stuff that it has already worked out how to do right, and the sense of discipline and focus to pick out what works and what doesn’t. Maybe the sequel next month will be good, maybe it won’t. But Arkane Studios, just remember that I’m happy to do some work for the next game, hmm? I’m the only freelancer who’ll take his hourly rate in Cadbury’s, you know.

 

WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE ZELDA FRANCHISE?

Over the last year I’ve been playing Zelda. A LOT of Zelda, actually. Wind Waker, Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask, A Link Between Worlds, Oracle Of Ages, and Metal Gear Solid 3 on the 3DS. That’s not a Zelda game, I just hate it so much I want to grumble for the rest of this paragraph about how awful it is. Ugh.

And though I have great affection for Zelda, like many Nintendo properties I think it could use an injection of fresh blood, not just remaking it periodically with alterations at the fringes, like putting a woollen jumper on a decaying sheep and hoping nobody will notice. All ideas lose their lustre and charm the more we are exposed to them, and concepts that seemed good at the time can age poorly or be supplanted by better ones.

Admittedly, it’s an exercise in futility to demand change from Nintendo (or at least the good kind of change, such as NOT reducing Mario to an infinite runner and compromising on elegant and nuanced design), but I’m going to demand that change anyway. In an age flushed with reboots, reimaginings and remakes, it’s not hard to concede that another one could make its way forward and even achieve some success. This is my hypothetical Zelda game that’ll likely never get made, despite the fact I’d want to see it.


STORY

This is the first thing you work out, because good design should complement and serve a basic narrative. And whilst it’s not usually done that way round in the industry, this is a fantasy and I’m going to indulge myself a little more before we finish.

First of all, we throw out Link being a character with no personality. Wind Waker proved that he’s more likeable when he emotes realistically, rather than trying to be a blank canvas for the player to project onto. Emotionless Link doesn’t work now and never really did, the idea was just so inoffensive that nobody cared too much. Maybe we keep Link being silent for this game, because a voice might be jarring at this point, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give him obvious drives, hopes, desires, fears and complexities. After all, the hero’s journey demands a proper hero at the centre, not a training dummy on marionette strings who has no more investment in what’s going on than the average deku nut.

Which brings the question of what exactly Link wants to achieve. Well, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’ll go with the classic explanation and say that Ganondorf is being evil, so Link has to hit him with a sword until he stops. But “generically evil” isn’t enough of a reason for somebody to commit atrocities, so we ask ourselves another question: why is he doing this?

Well, it occurred to me that we never really see things from Ganon’s perspective, not properly. There’s certainly not much of a personal motivation to defeat him, as he usually has only a couple of appearances in each game, once at the beginning to announce that he’s there at all, and once at the end for the boss fight where you kick his ass.

Which is where my central story concept originates from – I would structure a narrative in which Link, Zelda, Ganondorf and an extra fourth friend (no, not Tingle) grow up together as children and genuinely get along, before the Triforce then shows up and ruins everything by gifting each of the main three heroes a third of its divinity. Zelda gains great wisdom and understanding from her segment as per usual, whilst Ganon is hit with the Triforce Of Power and promptly goes megalomaniacally insane from its influence, unable to function stably now that he’s been hit with the power of a god.

See what I mean? My Ganon would be a good person corrupted by an object that was not intended for mortal usage, hence why his close friend Link has personal investment in stopping him and separating the two. It’s like the second Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, but with a gold triangle instead of a robot octopus. Ganon isn’t evil at his core, but the Triforce has warped him into a monster, making him both more frightening and more tragic all in one go, especially considering his new insanity would cause him to attack his friends for their pieces of that golden triangle.

Which brings me to the last point – Link is NOT the receiver of the Triforce Of Courage. Everybody thinks he has it, including himself, but what I’d actually do is send it to that fourth friend I mentioned and reveal the truth in the third act before the finale. Because it would make Link’s acts of heroism all the more heroic, as he’s not backed up by magic and he’s not a chosen one. He’s just a guy who stepped up to do the right thing, and that was all that was really needed. Link, the unnamed new character and Zelda work together to bring Ganon down, and rest is all details and plot points to be finalised later.

Who would that fourth friend be? Well, I was thinking of a younger kid who looks up to the rest of them, the symbolic representation of innocence and purity that lies in the balance. The game is about trying to save civilisation, but we see that struggle represented in the confused emotions of a younger friend, who embodies the battle of good, evil, power, courage, wisdom and more, deciding where his loyalties are owed. Exciting stuff.

Which leads us to the question of where to put this epic saga. The grand, sprawling majesty of Hyrule Kingdom? Well… No. Not exactly.


SETTING

Here’s something else to make the diehard Zelda fans bluster a bit. I would confine my story to one city, and one city only, with maybe a bit of land around the outside as and when plot demands it. Probably Hyrule capital, as the existence of Zelda herself suggests that her castle has to be in the area, but it doesn’t have to be there if we decide to reincarnate her like they did with Tetra.

Because if there’s one thing these games have always done well, it’s oddly emotive and endearing NPCs and random townsfolk. When Ganon blows up everything in Ocarina Of Time, the only part that made me sad was seeing the bustling market square turned into a lifeless ghost town. I couldn’t really care less what happens to the fields and plains outside, because nobody lives there except Maron, her lazy father, and their entrepreneur field hand Edmund Blackadder.

So double down on the city and personality of everything within it, making the whole thing feel like one vast but diverse settlement that all connects to each other. Make various districts, regions and locations that are visually distinctive, and include a likeable melting pot of all of Hyrule’s races. Maybe the Zoras live around the river, just next to Gorontown and its Hard Rock Café, arf arf. We should be establishing from the beginning that for all its faults, the city is something good, something that needs protecting and deserves these efforts to restore it.

The point of this is that when said city is threatened, the audience gives a damn and feels invested. Ganon promises to blow up the world in a lot of these games, but considering you never stay in one place for more than ten minutes, it’s hard to care about any of it. Having the whole map feel like Link’s home – albeit a very big and messy home – means that there’s a sense of community, and ideally enough of one to make the audience shout “hell, no” when a demonic boar comes threatening destruction.


GAMEPLAY AND PUZZLES

Well, right from the start it just makes sense to boost Link’s basic agility, increasing his climbing and jumping skills, as well as giving him the option to sprint. This is a city full of rooftops to be run across, alleys to hide in, crowds to duck through and drainpipes to climb, and Link is some simple urchin who would know how to scamper around an urban landscape. Enhance the ability to parkour across the town a bit and now it’s a vast, three-dimensional map that’s simply fun to traverse on its own terms. And not only that, but we can make it even more fun with the reintroduction of a couple of old toys from Zelda lore.

Those toys are the hookshot and the deku leaf. For those of you who don’t know, the latter was a Wind Waker item that functioned mainly as a parachute, slowing and controlling your fall whenever you leapt off something. So clearly it has an obvious function in any game where roof tiles are the new pavements. I don’t want to see my innards getting scooped into a barrel by some grimacing guard every time I slip on a drain gutter and take a tumble.

The hookshot is equally self-explanatory, a retractable grappling hook that historically has allowed Link to rappel up surfaces or drag enemies towards him. Here it would fit the mechanics like a glove, allowing you to swing over gaps, launch up the sides of buildings, and be used as a more central weapon in combat, but more on that later.

And none of that snapping to first person in order to aim it, OK? We can do that on bows and arrows, but here the emphasis is flow of movement and not stopping if you don’t have to. Take influence from Arkham Asylum, with the little symbol popping up on hookshot-friendly ledges when you get close enough to them.

And then there’s the puzzles, and right away I can think of something I’d do to change those: integrate them more cleanly into the world around them.

What do I mean by that? Well, one of the things I liked most about Majora’s Mask is that the time-travelling puzzles made sense within the context of the story. You find out that an old woman got burgled last night, so you hop back in time to prevent it from happening with your new knowledge. That all holds up within the established ideas of the world and doesn’t feel like the game is intruding on the story and setting.

But most puzzles in Zelda games don’t feel that natural. There is no real reason the water temple would have several buttons to change the tides, as well as moving platforms and spikes that lead to a chest holding a key that opens a door on the other side of the building. And don’t think you can get away with just calling these labyrinths “tests of courage,” either. In my Zelda game, the puzzles are either based on navigating traps set by somebody who genuinely doesn’t want you to progress, or more focused on plausible problems within the context of the world around you.

Finally, I’d make my dungeons and my open world a little less distinct from each other. Not cut out the dungeons altogether, but don’t make them an entirely separate pocket dimension. In the urban context it makes sense that most of them would be located in buildings, so why not have the option to access them through different entry points? Not as some mandatory thing that you do because you can’t complete the dungeon otherwise, but because you’ve found out from an NPC that you can deactivate certain traps and get a good sniper position if you try going through the higher window first.

I’d also make dungeons shorter and much more common, maybe a dozen brief rooms each, with most of them being optional and containing various new abilities. With time, all dungeons get frustrating, claustrophobic and run the risk of being repetitive, so we break up the monotony before it can ever sink in.

Notice how I very specifically DIDN’T say power-ups just then, I said abilities. Hacking your way defiantly through some secret labyrinth should unlock new attacks, or fresh options in combat and exploration. It should NOT just make the weapons and moves you already have become more powerful. Link is a small child going up against the hordes of darkness – it makes sense that he’d be fighting intelligently, utilising a bag of tricks scavenged from various hidey-holes around the capital.


COMBAT

Which I guess brings us to combat mechanics proper, and if there was anywhere in the Zelda games in need of a tune-up, this was it. First of all, Nintendo can sort out the targeting system, for god’s sake. Just make it how every other game in the universe does it, locking on and switching between enemies with the right analog stick. I’m sick of trying to engage in combat with some ravenous beastie, only for the Hero Of Hyrule to advance nervously on some dozing caterpillar far beyond it, all because the programmer doesn’t know the correct etiquette for target-lock.

And as mentioned, I’d also increase the utility and importance of the hookshot, maybe using it to replacing the shield altogether. Remember, my Link is a nimble, light-footed rapscallion that won’t block an enemy attack if he can avoid it altogether, and in my mind the shield would be a heavy, unwieldy thing that comes with suitable penalties. But by using the hookshot in tandem with the sword, I’d like to see the player drag enemies around with the chain, disarm them of weapons, throw them into other foes, trip them up, and maybe work with environmental objects in order to get that edge in combat. How cool would it be to organically swing over some goon’s head, only to pull down a damaged wall with the same item and squash him with the debris?

I’d also remove the aspect where you stun-lock most enemies easily. For a while in the 3D Zelda games it’s been pretty simple to get the edge on most bad guys by rattling their heads with the Master Sword until they die, but that won’t fly in mine. Ramp up the AI intelligence so that they know how to deflect a sword blow AND recover from one too, so it’s less about knocking down various armoured weebls than it is about looking for the opening or opportunity. A lot of enemies won’t even leave easy ways for you to attack them in the first place, making the environment essential for success.

Same principles apply to bosses, which admittedly is something Zelda has usually been pretty good about. My choice of bosses would be a rogue’s gallery of monsters, mercenaries and minions, all of which have legitimate backstories that explain their actions. Which is why upon defeating them that Link doesn’t just kill/desummon/explode the bastards, but hands them over to the city guard for a just trial. After all, this city is meant to be something good, right? It knows how to treat criminals with respect.


CONCLUSION

So there we have it. Rather more experimental than most Zelda games, but I think there’d be real potential in something like this. Originality and reinvention associated with old products is often approached with disdain by hardcore fans, but if Nintendo are going to keep making these games, I’m going to ask that they acknowledge the times we live in to some degree.

Did you think this premise sounded solid? Can you think of anything you’d add or subtract from Zelda games as a whole? What games would you also like to see tackled in this way? Stay tuned for next time, where we’ll be looking at refining a certain sneaky-stabby franchise that’s now coming back after a temporary hiatus – and no, it’s not Assassins’ Creed.

MORDOR WON’T BE CASTING A SHADOW ANYTIME SOON

Orcs! They’re like the P.E. teachers of the fantasy world; big, brutish and with the kind of intellect that makes you look for the nearest point of escape. Or maybe that’s just me.

Of course, when I say fantasy I mean Lord Of The Rings. You know, that one fantasy template, the one that everybody copies from when the idea bucket is running low and they just can’t be bothered any more. Why think up diverse and impressive worlds when you can just do what everyone else did and steal from the once-unique ideas of J.R.R. Tolkien?

The latest video game incarnation of Middle Earth to grab people was last year’s title, Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor. It’s a very good game, a mix of Arkham Asylum’s combat with Assassin’s Creed’s free-running, in which you waddle around Sauron’s backyard, sandbox style, frightening the orcs who live there and occasionally beheading them when you feel like it.

All of the above is a plus in my book, and though the story was basically forgettable, the game featured some interesting ideas. The one that stuck with people was the Nemesis System, perhaps one of the most innovative ideas for sandbox gameplay in years. Everybody I spoke to about it was certain that this would set the standard for these types of games, and I can understand why they’d think that.

See, whilst Mordor is flooded with your standard breed of orc, a few of them get to be captains, randomly generated and part of a tiered hierarchy into which they are inserted. Let me give you an example.

Eyeglaze

“These are awesome! Guys, come check out my new contact lenses!”

Let’s say you’re wandering through Middle Earth, picking your nose, and you get jumped by a gang of enemies. A random orc lands a fatal blow and suddenly he becomes a captain for having killed you, known as Flegmog The Bug-Eyed, or whatever. He gets put into the hierarchy at the lowest rank. A little later we hear reports that he’s been on a successful hunting trip, and has levelled up. He’s now more capable than before, but he’s still lowest rank.

Not for long. Flegmog has eyes on advancement, and thinks he might be able to take on his boss, Rabflib Headsmasher. Fleggy challenges him to a duel, and if he wins (something you can witness and even intervene in) he levels up again and also takes Rabflib’s place. One axe-swing later, he’s rank two, with the resources and power to match.

Meanwhile, this sort of thing is happening all over Mordor. Captains are competing, getting killed, getting promoted, getting trained. You can get involved at every stage, get invested and alter the events however you wish. If a captain you dislike is holding a feast, you can poison the grog to lower his standing or even kill him. Or, if you want to him advance, you can make sure that everything goes according to plan from the shadows and get him through the night, raising his standing with others of his kind.

This would all be good enough on its own, but later in the game you get the power to hypnotise and control orcs, including captains. This itself opens up a thousand new possibilities. Maybe you want the high warchief dead, but don’t fancy your chances in a direct fight.

No problem! Brainwash a lesser orc, make him become a captain and start working him up through the ranks, helping in his duels and the like. Finally, you can make him join the warchief’s entourage, at which point you telepathically suggest that he mash his leader to death with a hammer. If he wins then he’ll become the replacement warchief, a valuable asset considering that he’s still under your spell.

Controller

“And whilst you’re at it, can you put up some shelves in my living room?”

There’s other aspects I haven’t even mentioned, like how orcs have personal weaknesses and strengths to research and exploit, how they’ll remember details of previous encounters with you and even how some of them refuse to stay dead. At one point I threw a particularly fat orc onto a fire and watched him roast to death, before smugly walking away, action-hero style.

Unfortunately nobody had told fatso that this should have killed him, and as I was travelling later I suddenly heard a yell, and turned to see that Chubso Porkchewer had returned, albeit covered in horrible burns and screaming for revenge. He’d been training too, taking some effort to put down, but when I finally impaled him through the stomach and pushed him off my sword, I felt pretty good about myself.

Except that it didn’t work, and a few hours later my fat friend was back, his ample gut covered in bandages and promising that I wouldn’t get to stab him again. Bloody hell, forget Sauron. This psycho is the true villain of my game.

And I guess that’s the point, that it was specific to MY game. The whole thing was wonderfully organic, a real gem of an idea, and those I was talking to were insistent that this sort of thing was going to be seen more and more.

Well… No. At least, I don’t think so, not really.

Don’t take the wrong impression, there’s nothing wrong at all with the Nemesis System. In fact, it’s pretty awesome and one of the most memorable creations in recent triple-A gaming. I just think that this is a one-time deal. Maybe we’ll see variations of it come back a couple of times in the next few years, but I’m not convinced it’ll revolutionise sandbox gaming as everybody was saying it would.

For a start, I can only imagine how jaw-droppingly expensive this was to make, not to mention how many man-hours had to go into it. Getting the algorithms right, creating enough physical and statistical traits to keep the orcs fresh (relatively speaking), testing these new ideas and recreating them through trial and error – the final cost must have been staggering, the kind of numbers that make Bill Gates shocked.

This really is one of those projects that can only be done well by major game developers who have the capital to back them up. Maybe you could get lesser versions done with lesser budgets, but it’ll get old fast. Basically, this was one hell of a commitment and not something you can just drop into a game if you feel like it afterwards. This is something you had to work at, something you had to invest massive amounts of time and effort into creating. I don’t see many developers doing that, knowing that it won’t be as exciting the second time.

Not to mention that it’s hard to think of a game that would suit this system better. Somebody suggested a crime sandbox like GTA, with a structured system of Mafia goons, but I don’t think it would be as good without some serious changes. It seemed to me like Shadow Of Mordor was designed from the ground up with these ideas in mind, which is why it worked so well. Your own deaths are part of this cycle, your hypnosis powers are a fundamental aspect, two dynamics that could only be applied with a very particular type of story. One of the reasons that the Nemesis System was so effective was that it fit the concept like a glove, to the extent where I almost wonder if they came up with the mechanics first and made a game to fill the gaps around it.

It won’t apply so well in other games with different stories, not without some major restructuring, and even then people will see through it. They’ll look at these ideas and say “oh, it’s like Shadow Of Mordor – but less tightly designed and without all the options of the original. Better luck next time.”

Nemesis

“Oh, god! <cough, cough> Right, the second I brainwash you, I’m making you eat a whole crate of breathmints.”

That’s not to say people won’t try. If there’s ever a sequel to this game then I expect that it’ll have a similar thing, because people will expect it. And maybe a few other publishers will try to unsuccessfully imitate the process without understanding the subtleties, but it won’t take long for it to sink in that this is a faithful hound, one that can’t be given to a new owner without biting them quite badly.

The Nemesis System will, in that case, remain a brief firework, something that shone all the brighter for its inevitable disappearance. And that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s still a great game that people will remember for a long time. It would be nice if some other game managed to improve on it, but I don’t think it’ll happen. It’s fine already, and it’s OK to leave it alone now.

Think about it. Would Fawlty Towers have been improved with another season? Would Hamlet have needed a spin-off? Would Bioshock have needed a direct seque- Oh.

Well, I guess that proves it, then.