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.

DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB REVIEW

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB, AS WELL AS REFERENCE TO PLOT, CONTENT AND HUMOUR SOME READERS MAY FIND DISTRESSING OR DISTURBING.

I know, this one seemed so outside my particular comfort zone that it might as well have been written in actual Japanese kanji for all the connective tissue between me and it, but I’ll say that the only reason I tried out Doki Doki Literature Club is that I was told that there was a meaty plot twist, ahem, hanging around to surprise the player, a twist so meaty as to be, oh… a hundred and twenty pounds heavy? Maybe one-fifteen if her shoes fall off?

Blimey, that one was dark even for me. Regardless, I downloaded it for free off Steam, and as I loaded it up I couldn’t help but stare contemptuously at the main menu, full of pastel colours, bouncy pink font, chirpy music on a distressingly short loop, and four girls who were clearly so underage that I found myself wanting to apply a short, sharp spray of mace to my own eyeballs.

Fine, I thought bitterly. I’m hungover, the flat’s cold and I’m badly losing in my current game of Civilisation V. If there was ever a mood in which I was primed to go for the jugular, this was it.

 

“WELCOME TO THE LITERATURE CLUB!” – The Plot

It’s worth clarifying that Doki Doki Literature Club has no gameplay to speak of, bar a couple of puzzles which range from the unchallenging but conceptually interesting, to the unchallenging and conceptually UNinteresting (largely the latter) so what this game is selling itself on is the plot, and on that basis it will be judged, whether it likes it or not.

Of course, the first thing I did was pick a name for my avatar, and being an uncooperative sort even at the best of times, I scribbled the label “Bumflaps” on my hypothetical name badge. Turns out that ol’ B-Flap is a generic anime protagonist living a generic anime high school life with a generic anime girl-next-door romance potentially brewing, and this leads me to my first and most major criticism of DDLC: yes, this is a game that’s building up to parody and horror (of a sort), but it’s so committed to its disguise that it maintains the illusion of being a chirpy visual novel for several hours, and does so with impressive accuracy.

Consequently, it’s fucking insufferable during this section. No exaggeration, I was writhing in my chair in actual discomfort from how much I hated this part. Because even if Mister Bumflaps, Esq. had gotten a nicer player who’d named him Konfident Q. McMagnificent XII, it still wouldn’t make him any more tolerable to be around. He’s annoying in that most typically anime manner, a limply-passive Mary-Sue who wobbles between infuriatingly naïve to acting like he’s seen all this before. Kudos to the creators for catching that famously corrosive tone just right, but I’m reluctant to say I admire or appreciate that work when I had to put up with Bumflaps pussyfooting his way through the plot for the better part of my Saturday, when I could’ve been doing something important like playing with the latch on my suitcase or just eating my own lips straight off my face.

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Bumflaps’ initial odyssey through high school takes a sudden turn for the uninteresting and stays on that path for a painfully long time.

But whatever you call him, Protagonist-sempai makes his way into a new school year and immediately finds himself peer-pressured by a friend to join the freshly-formed Literature Club, the other four members of which are all ostensibly attractive girls of the sort who look like they’ve just been torn off the front of a love pillow. In fact, considering they’re always shown as flat images who don’t animate, that might be true for all I know. And though things change later, to start with they all have a single personality trait that defines each of them, and these vary from annoying, to irritating, to aggravating, to boring. Very boring. In fact, most of them are boring. Boring to the point that I can barely remember half their names even on the same day as having played it. I remember that they all had statistically and biologically improbable hair framing a set of near-identical faces, but that just sounds like the characters of South Park, and I don’t want the task of seducing them either.

And what doesn’t help is the game not-so-subtly engaging in a bit of meta-commentary,of the type that is quickly beginning to get on my nerves in a lot of indie games, because nine times out of ten it’s never as smart as it thinks it is. “Boy,” loudly exclaims one character early on, who’d clearly have been waggling her eyebrows if the budget could’ve stretched to a second five pound note. “Isn’t it interesting how a writer can play with an absolute IDIOT’S lack of imagination, subverting their expectations to do stuff you wouldn’t expect, hmm? Hmm? HMMM?!”

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Prolonged sequences describing the eating of a cupcake had the distinct effect of making me wish I was staring at a blank screen instead.

So that began to wear on me within the first fifteen minutes, which was a shame, because that was about one-twelfth of the way into the syrupy, fetishistic quagmire of “vis-nov” nonsense that I normally wouldn’t go near without a hazmat suit. The only bits that kept me going were the occasional hint or foreshadowing of what was supposed to come, which admittedly works quite well when it’s not being too meta, played just about straight and subtle enough for you to be uncertain whether this just a failed attempt by the writer to be cute or emotional.

For example, about midway through this nauseating candyfloss maelstrom of a plot, the shy one abruptly tells you that she collects knives and loves how sharp they look, which is one of those suck-air-through-teeth moments that would make any normal person be taking a subtle step back towards the exit. The loud girl drops hints towards a very nasty home life, the school idol seems to know more of the other’s secrets than she has any right to, while the one living next door mentions that she suffers from crippling depression.

And it’s the last one of these that’s actually written with genuine skill and heart. You’ve got this really well-constructed presentation of somebody undergoing a very human, heartfelt suffering, and what I thought was poignant about it was that her pain felt beyond my control. She’s clearly been going through some very hard-hitting issues for a very long time, now too heavily ingrained to be solved miraculously by a pretty-boy haircut and the occasional fumbling, “comical” accident that ends with your face buried in her chest, like a creepy middle-school adaption of The Benny Hill Show.

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Though seemingly inane at first, the group’s poems shared in the early game hint at the darker, somewhat more nuanced material coming later.

So that part has some well-written stuff, and this all reaches a sad, agonising peak when that girl commits suicide, ostensibly at a time where (according to the tepid rules of manga and romance, at least) she should’ve been at her highest point. And whilst I won’t call it horror, it is startlingly affecting, a genuine tragedy that woke me up out of my boredom, made feel really quite mournful, and helped me realise just how well her character was developed in the course of the story…

And then the game pissed all that good effort away again as the horror rolls around in full force. Sigh.

To begin with it seems interesting enough – right after her death the game forces you to restart the plot, only this time the depressed girl is conspicuously absent from proceedings and nobody will acknowledge that she ever existed in the first place. But then things begin to get wearisome as the story becomes more about video games as a medium than any of the characters. So suddenly an emerging plot point about the game’s files being rewritten means that all continuity is thrown out the window, and everything’s fair game now, with any symbolism and nuance vanishing in a puff of nonsense. Bleeding from the eyes? Throw it in there. Having the character suddenly jump towards the screen like a startled house spider? Eh, go ahead. Graphical glitches that distort the images? Sure, why not? What does it matter? This isn’t a complex character drama lampooning an intolerable genre style anymore, this is “HORROR!” Not horror, but HORROR! i.e., silly, scary things happening frequently and without much justification, because… well, that’s HORROR!

It’s an important distinction. Alien is horror. The Shining is horror. But YouTube comments about ghost girls killing the people who don’t copy-paste their story to three more videos with cats on them is “HORROR!

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Late-game attempts at horror frequently fall flat, despite starting strong with a tragic character focus and having some ostensibly interesting ideas to work with.

And what really got on my plums is that this element began to intrude retroactively upon the stuff I liked before, including an infuriating moment where Mary Jane Watson’s suicide is written off as part of the villain’s scheme. Oh, she wasn’t really depressed, she just had her code altered to make her a gloomy Gus. For fuck’s sake, the one thing this game does really well and now it’s trying to go back and ruin it. After impressing on you how unsolvable this problem is without serious effort over a long period of time, the game then tells you it can be solved with minimal effort very quickly, because you have the cheat codes to the universe.

That being said, there is one good puzzle at the end that I alluded to earlier, which involves actually quitting the game, going into the files and deleting the right one. That’s actually quite innovative, though DDLC seems terrified that you won’t pick up on what it’s telling you. “BOY,” says the villain, also wishing for some of that eyebrow-wiggling budget that didn’t exist. “IT’S SO EASY TO DELETE CHARACTERS BY GOING INTO STEAM, RIGHT-CLICKING THE GAME, SELECTING ‘PROPERTIES’, BROWSING LOCAL FILES AND- BWUHHH?! WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING?! I NEVER THOUGHT YOU’D ACTUALLY TRY IT ON ME! NOOOOOOOO!!!”

 

“NANI?!” – The Conclusion

Despite being implemented rather scrappily, there some really good ideas here, and overall I wish there’d been more of that creativity on show. It’s why I don’t hate Doki Doki Literature Club, because the makers clearly have some talent, with stuff like “Girl-Next-Door’s” very human depression and the rather clever puzzle concept at the end, followed by a finale that I actually found quite interesting. Even the early high school visual novel stuff shows skill, because it successfully keeps up the façade of such a game for long enough that anybody who hadn’t read a review like this one would probably be quite shocked by the sudden turn of events. Sure, that early part made me want to bury a spoon behind my eyes and lever them out onto the desk in front of me, but all visual novels do that, so it just meant the disguise was working.

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Despite some admirably strong and emotionally poignant moments that really made my heart go out to the characters, they feel like an underutilised minority in a game that would seemingly rather be courting the “Let’s Play” market.

But it’s not enough to really justify the experience in my eyes, even with the fact that it is free. About half the game had me crawling up the walls trying to electrocute myself on the lightbulb fittings, with writing that manages to feel sub-par to Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties at the worst bits, with the better stuff coming around only just in time to stop me giving up on it altogether. But then that only lasts for about half an hour before the eye-rolling internet HORROR! tropes roll up in such force that it’s a wonder the final villain isn’t flanked on both sides by Slenderman and Freddy Fazbear.

The upshot of this is that when the game ended, I felt very, very certain I’d seen all I needed to see. Then I discovered that you could play around with the files for even more variations on the story and… And actually I’m good, thanks. No, really, I’m good thanks. I’m so full up on Doki Doki Literature Club that I couldn’t take another bite, and I really might get a bit cross if you try and feed me any more, got it?

 

COMPARATIVE RATING: LIKE READING TWO COLLECTIONS OF A SUB-PAR HIGH-SCHOOL MANGA, TWO PAGES OF AN EXCELLENT CHARACTER DRAMA, AND TWO HOURS OF CREEPY-PASTAS IN A SINGLE, DRAINING AFTERNOON.

 

PLUMBERS DON’T WEAR TIES REVIEW – 2 YEAR ANNIVERSARY & 100th ARTICLE SPECIAL

I don’t know what the universe wants from me any more. I really don’t. Every time I try a game that I think is the worst one ever, reality at large gives a cackle of malevolent glee and spits out something far more awful. I remember playing Tales Of Zestiria a while back and thinking I had reached the pinnacle of what was, paradoxically, the lowest point that gaming had to offer. How naïve I was! Since then there’s been a ton of crappy mobile games, the Steam Early Access garbage, the games that ended up technically broken or flat-out non-functional, and all the tedious franchise maintenance gruel that comes with a billion dollar budget and ten cents worth of good ideas. Then most of those would be topped by my attempt to play more than twenty minutes of E.T. without my head falling off, which would in turn be peaked by the actual revolted anger I felt when enduring Duke Nukem Forever.

But you know what? DNF is still a game in the most technical sense. It achieves that function, however imperfectly. On the other hand, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is… Well, I don’t honestly know. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, this thing beggars belief and probably buggers beggars for good measure, so confusing and abhorrent everything about it manages to be. Within five minutes of starting it up my jaw was hanging open, within ten minutes my eye was twitching dangerously, and within the first quarter of an hour I had run to the kitchen cabinet to find any sort of alcohol or cleaning fluid with which I could chemically numb the experience. After the forty-five minutes it took to beat this thing, I was in the foetal position in my chair, eyes wide and staring into the middle distance.

I’m genuinely worried that I’ve irreparably damaged my ability to critique games by playing this thing. I’m concerned that now I’ll be grading all others on a curve so steep that it looks like a mobius strip. I’ll be playing Dog Punching Simulator 2017 and thinking deliriously to myself “well, at least it’s not PDWT! Give that sucker a ten out of ten!”

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You ask for context, but I can give none – this game confuses me as much as it confuses you.

Some explanation is clearly in order. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is a sort of early interactive narrative from 1993; a surreal, erotic comedy (and I use those last two words quite wrongly) that feels like what a Telltale game would’ve been if it had been made on a computer with half the processing power of a typewriter, crafted with assets ripped inexpertly from leftover surveillance tapes, and all strung together by a writer with a rolled-up copy of Playboy lodged several inches deep in his forehead.

I’d always known about this thing by reputation, but by all accounts the game had been lost to time and to the uncaring march of technology… And then that changed a few months ago, when some noble fool committed to the cause of archiving gaming history found a working copy and made a functional port for modern computers, putting it online for the world to…

Well, not enjoy, but at least acknowledge. Preserving culture is certainly an admirable sentiment and one I’d normally be fully in favour of, but a big part of archeology is knowing what relics to put in a museum and which ones to throw back in the dirt, lest they pop open and melt your face off. And Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties does make me feel like how the Nazis must’ve felt at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark – screaming in agony and begging for forgiveness from a callous, uncaring god.

Our epic odyssey starts with two characters so utterly boring and bland that I can barely remember that they exist even while looking at them. Turns out that Dick and Jane are each being pressured by their respective parent to pump out a couple of kids with a suitable breeding partner… At which point the whole story goes off the rails so hard that the buffet car is now orbiting Jupiter next to the monolith. So suddenly there’s a naked shower sequence! And then there’s a live audience cheering, though there was no suggestion of one up until now! Then there’s the most generic music in existence, looping over and over! Then there’s a narrator introduced fifteen minutes in, wearing the rooster mask from Hotline Miami and sitting next to a Benjamin Franklin statue, which is followed by a goofy slasher sequence over a girl in her underwear, which in turn precedes the introduction of a second narrator in a karate uniform! We’re two thirds of the way through the plot at this point, and somehow both nothing and everything has happened!

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Baffling and poorly photographed pictures run in a frenetic, hideous slideshow, whilst the audience is forced to listen to some of the worst dialogue ever written laid over the top.

“Disconnected” doesn’t do it justice. Trying to link the various ideas displayed in Plumbers makes me feel like a a conspiracy nut stringing together blurry photos of the JFK assassination and Bigfoot sightings on his apartment wall. It leaves your head spinning, but there is something darkly fascinating about witnessing such narrative anarchy. The subject matter and story direction changes with the wind, ricocheting from idea to idea like a fly trapped in a glass box and resulting a story so chaotic that you’re liable to end up feeling seasick. I thought I was numb at this point to poor characterisation and crappy writing, but I actually ended up screaming the words “what am I watching?!” at the screen, multiple times in the first half hour.

So you see my problem here, right? My ability to critique a game is dependent on there actually being a game to critique, not a set of unrelated images, words and sounds that plays like a damaged PowerPoint Presentation, designed by a lunatic with a fetish for blondes and bad photography. I feel like I’m staring down into an abyss with no visible bottom, but I have news for you all – the abyss doesn’t stare back into you. That would be poetic in some manner, and poetry requires at least a third of a functioning brain, something that was not available of the set of PDWT.

Now I have calmed down somewhat, let me try and explain “the gameplay” of this thing in detail. You’re presented with a slideshow of images that will be vaguely connected if you’re lucky, with a combination of sounds and narration playing over the top in an attempt to contextualise them and generate some sort of story. By the way, this audio design includes some of the most wooden voice acting and dreadful dialogue I’ve heard from… Well, ANYTHING, and I still remember seeing teenage couples trying to flirt with each other. Then, roughly every ten minutes or so, three text boxes using ugly font on a monochromatic background will pop up so you can choose one of them, and each one leads to a different slideshow with the same problems as before – or maybe even worse.

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Your choices of where the story goes are short, but certainly not sweet. The flavour left in my mouth was more along the lines of “burnt ash and failure.”

How do you know which text box to pick, by the way? God fucking knows! The game – and sometimes the characters themselves – will berate you every time you pick the wrong one, but the correct answer seems to be arbitrary to the point of being best deciphered with a set of tarot cards. The overall goal is to bring Mr. PornStar Plumber, Esq. and Ms. Hooters’ Employee Of The Year ’87 together in a healthy relationship, or at least what this game considers to be a healthy relationship, which is less “Casablanca” and more akin to “Debbie Does Dallas.” But when I failed to set them up early on and the male lead ended up dating a gay criminal, I actually cheered. Not because I was rooting for them to get together – I wasn’t, that’s more investment in this saga than any sane person could maintain – but because it led to a GAME OVER screen and gave me the opportunity to get a refill of rum that would help ease the pain of my second attempt. Why couldn’t I get my booze earlier? Well, clearly installing a pause menu or a save/load option was a bit more than the budget could handle, so once you start the story going you’ve basically stuck for the next hour watching it play out.

It’s also a blisteringly sexist game, but that practically goes without saying with a premise like this. Our female lead spends the first few scenes staggering around uselessly in a shirt that shows enough cleavage to embarrass Elvira (and with far less charisma and self-awareness than Cassandra Peterson ever showed), before that shirt is removed from her entirely as she runs through the streets screaming like a damaged kettle. Even when the narrator is replaced by a female one, she is later shot to death by the original using a Nerf Gun. I’ll say it again – what the hell am I watching? And more importantly, when in god’s name can I stop?!

By the way, if you leap into this expecting at least some sort of erotic thrill, then you’re completely out of luck and then some. I will give Plumbers the most minor credit, in that male and female nudity are given equal presence in the “sexy” scenes. I suppose that shows some sort of misguided attempt to include everybody equally in this train wreck, but it’s pointless trying to get people invested in this game for any reason beyond Stockholm Syndrome. The nudity is so tame that I’d believe this game was rated twelve before I believed it was rated eighteen, with the occasional infrequent shot of somebody’s backside and at one point a poorly-photographed nipple, which probably wasn’t even much to gasp about in 1993. I can’t understand how they got this element wrong, of all things. Making porn should not be difficult, you just drop two or more people on top of each other and play some bass guitar in the background! Somehow, in some way, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties screwed that up too!

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You know you’re onto something terrible when the cast looks less interested in being there than you do.

At the end of the day, the question is this: can PDWT provoke enough “so bad it’s funny” amusement to justify the effort required to hunt it down? Um… Well, I never really laughed playing it, but I’ll admit to being impressed by the amount of paint that would’ve presumably had to be huffed so as to inspire the scriptwriters. Maybe you could hunt down a recording on YouTube just to witness this mess firsthand, but for the love of God, if some time traveller offers you a copy of this thing and asks for actual money in return, punch them in the nose for that insult.

I’ll finish by saying what you’ve already worked out, loud and clear. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is the worst game I’ve ever played, bar none. It is a mindfuck of epic proportions, to the point where viewing it with hallucinogenic drugs in your system would probably normalise it by degrees. This erotic comedy game isn’t erotic, isn’t funny, and isn’t even a game. It’s just a stark, staring look into the horror of the human soul, that little void within all of us where we hide those terrible thoughts and urges that we dare not let loose – and standing there in the middle of it all is a man in a chicken mask and a gold bow tie.

So it is with great humility that I bestow upon Plumbers the worst scores I am capable of offering – two thumbs down, one hundred percent rotten, five Piers Morgans out of five, and yes, the holy grail of holy crap – a zero out of ten. There is nothing in this thing that works on any level, as the whole game just ends up being insulting, baffling, or terrifying. Should I ever commit suicide, the associated note will be written on the back of the game’s box, and will be over in five words.

“Can you really blame me?”


0/10

The worst game I’ve ever played at time of writing, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties appears to have made just about every poor decision a game’s creators could make. My eyes, my soul and my hard drive have been forever tainted, and the only time I felt anything positive for this game was the stab of envy that occurred when I saw how easily and how efficiently the file was deleted afterwards.


 

Oh, and happy two-year anniversary/one hundredth article, by-the-by. Huge thanks to everybody for enjoying my work and suffering alongside me all this time. Even when there’s crud like this, it’s still more fun than I’d ever admit, and you guys make it worth it.

THE FAILURE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.

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Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.

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Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.

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Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.

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.

GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE REVIEW – “PLAYER TEMPERS ARE SKY-HIGH”

Here’s a bit of information that’ll surprise nobody: people suck.

And here’s a bit of information that’ll somehow be even less surprising than the previous one: people who play online multiplayer games suck even more.

I mean, is it even up for debate at this point? Between the pathetic shrieking, the inability to cooperate cheerfully, the ugly personalities, the permeating, eye-rolling belief that every game is the final match in some lame eSports tournament and that those who aren’t min-maxing every piece of gear are somehow not worth your time… It’s all infuriating. Why don’t you just relax and have some fun, you jackasses? You’re the collective reason why anybody with any brains at all sticks to the calm, clean waters of single player, rather than take the risk of jumping into the diseased community pool that is online gaming.

Yes, maybe I am a little bitter. I’ve never been a man for multiplayer in any major way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good design and understand that playing with others can add a certain spice, especially when certain choices complement that spice. Watch_Dogs is now accepted as a pile of bland wallpaper paste and Hot Topic t-shirt scraps, but that hide and seek invasion thing worked pretty well, mainly for the ability to watch other people wet themselves when they realised someone was reading their browser history. And Dark Souls figured out pretty early on that the best way to minimise the problems of online gaming is to keep the dialogue and communication to a minimum, with clear goals and objectives for everyone involved. After all, nothing brings down the experience of playing with other people like… Well, other people.

And thus we come to Guns Of Icarus Online, which is a game I only found out existed last week, but had secretly always wanted in some form or another without quite knowing it had been done already. I can’t tell if I should be pleased or annoyed by that fact. I suspect that those who read a lot of my work will be able to guess.

The basic concept of this game is that everybody gets booted into a multiplayer server, and there’s a bunch of heavily-armed steampunk-pirate-ship-blimp things that float around like the inhabitants of Fallen London had decided to re-enact a battle from Star Wars, and the result is as lethal as you’d expect. Up to four players who are all seeing everything in first-person totter around on each ship trying not to vomit, and they’re all required to perform various roles if everybody’s going to make it out alive and bring down the enemy craft.

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The landscapes and level design in Guns Of Icarus are often hauntingly beautiful and even a little chilling. This mood is frequently ruined by the static-ridden moaning supplied by your teammates.

Which immediately brings out the problem of shared responsibility, and the failing of one person quickly becoming something that everyone has to deal with. Whether it’s the captain steering you all into a cliff, or the engineer just spending the whole game cooking marshmallows by the glow of a small engine fire, the blimp getting smashed to bits is still going to mean death for everyone, whether you’re Amelia Airhart or Ted Striker.

But normally I wouldn’t worry about this sort of thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the enemy ship that bursts into flames or if it’s ours, the gameplay is still fun and shooting at distant targets is satisfying enough to be worth the effort, win or lose. It’s not like GTA V, where one person getting killed in the online mission was a genuine pain in the neck, as you all got thrown back to the start and lost progress. Yeah, you’d forgotten how much that sucked, didn’t you? I’m going to hold that grudge until the end of time.

But back to Guns Of Icarus, and let me say that the element of teamwork is a fundamental mixed bag. In my mind I was hoping for something like those scenes in Firefly or classic Star Trek, where everybody’s coordinating tactics and having a great time doing so. And when I was lucky enough to be playing with friends that was certainly the case, especially when you realise that the game is instantly made twice as good when you put on a pirate voice.

It was all rather thrilling. From my position at the helm I’d spin the wheel and turn us hard to port with a great thunder of wood and sails, bellowing commands and watching my loyal crew scamper around, wisecracking and generally enjoying themselves. Or maybe I’d be some lowly engineer cabin boy (represented by yours truly putting on a tremulous Oliver Twist voice), dashing between various parts of the ship at the whim of my commander, trying to fight back the flames and keep everything running. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s nuanced, but most of all it feels good to do…

… Until you enter a public lobby by yourself, and everything goes to shit. I admit that there’s not much the developers can do about their customer base acting like piss-stained chimps, but perhaps they could stop giving them abilities to annoy other people with? One particularly galling factor is that any captains in the lobby can extend the timer before the game starts, apparently indefinitely. Why the fuck is that there? What purpose does it have other than to be abused? If people aren’t ready to play, they could always just back out of the lobby and adjust their knick-knacks there, though I doubt they need it. The developers do give them two hundred seconds of prep-time at least, I’m sure they can cope with that.

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Gunfire and explosions are what makes this game fun, whether those explosions come from your cannons, your engine, or your hydrogen-filled balloon “Hindenburging.”

There’s other irritants you’ll have to endure if you want to get at the pearl of good game design. For example, I do understand why the pilot is always the de facto Captain once you start playing. He’s best positioned to survey the area, he can maneuver the ship to get the optimal angles on enemies, and in a game about teamwork it’s still probably helpful to have somebody who can buckle down and take charge when things get hairy.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice it only means that one little git with a pile of Mountain Dew bottles stacked by his chair gets a power rush to match his sugar rush, and will scream unendingly at those unfortunates who don’t do what he tells them straight away. Oh, and captains can also see what loadout you’re using and recommend different ones, which only puts more power in their hands. No, I don’t want that kind of hammer using up my limited equipment space. Yes, I know there’s no limit to how many times you can make that text box ping at me and tell me to change it, you little sod.

And see how far declining that offer gets you – either a tirade of abuse in your ear or some mouth-breather giving a disgusted groan into the microphone before he lengthily explains why your build is completely wrong and inefficient. Dude, I’m just here to blow up airships with my flamethrower turret. Why is everybody making this so goddamn difficult for me?

Because on the few occasions that the dominoes fall into place and you get a good game going, it’s actually very engaging. The maps are huge and all thick with fog, which is placed around in a manner that manages not to be overly obstructive, yet adds a layer of stealth prior to every dogfight. Hell, it manages to be creepy and tension-raising to a legitimately startling degree. There’s something skin-crawling about the silence as you float past looming mountains or damaged skyscrapers, the only sounds being the creaking of rope and timber, constantly straining your eyes to see if that’s the glint of an enemy craft inside that wall of cloud-bank.

Then, BANG! Cannon fire ‘cross the starboard bow, sir! Aagh! Get on the port turrets, you scurvy dogs! I’ll swing this tub around to greet ‘em! Mister Engineer, keep watch on those propellers, I’m pushing ‘em to all they’ve got! Direct hit, sir! Wait, what the hell’s that sound? Captain, second target approaching from the stern! They’re below us, sir! Then man your stations, and full speed ahead! Prepare to fire on my command! CHARGE!

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Hmm… Might need to break out the ol’ toolkit for this one.

At least, that’s how it should be. And with the right friends, that’s what you get. Bombastic, climactic, volcanic airship action, that comfortably blends strategy with heat-of-the-moment thinking and a nicely designed backdrop. But if you go in solo and end up with a mismatched team of nose-picking goons, you can watch something that should’ve been superb get completely ruined as an experience. Hoo-bloody-rah.

So my advice to anybody considering a purchase is this: buy if you have at least one other friend who plays, and only go on it when you know he’ll be backing you up. And when you hop into matchmaking, take your own ship and pray to god that all the other crew members besides you and your bestie are just the quiet, cooperative bots, which are clearly superior to the pond life that might replace them. Those of you who don’t have any friends up for airship battles are advised to stay clear unless you have an insanely strong stomach, and not just because of air sickness.


6.5/10

With a better community this easily could’ve been an eight or even higher, but the fact that players are permitted to act like dicks and even actively encouraged to do so means that the biggest foe in Guns Of Icarus isn’t the enemy – it’s your own crew. Scoop this one up if you’ve got comrades who you love and trust, otherwise you may want to keep your feet on the ground.

HAYDEE REVIEW – “BEEP BOOB”

Well. That was… Something.

In light of the controversy surrounding Haydee, it almost feels pointless to offer a critique of how it holds up on the level of gameplay. After all, everybody who’s played it or seen footage of the titular protagonist (and I choose that word very carefully) has already formed their opinion. Either you hate it for being sexist, you admire it for being subversive, or you love it disproportionately because a group you don’t like hates it. Or, contrarily, you hate it for the same reason. Or maybe you just have a fetish for women with buckets on their heads. Que sera, sera.

The point is that writing around the subject feels somewhat irrelevant, but that never stopped me before. So I’ll come right out and say it – a few gameplay ideas in Haydee are basically OK. Doesn’t matter if the main character is a sexist throwback or a powerful gender-icon when it comes to that angle, any more than Hideo Kojima’s sub-par writing skills change the fact that it’s fun to choke Russians in MGSV.

The game prides itself on insane difficulty, and that is certainly warranted. You meander around the sexbot research zone of Aperture Science Laboratories, and a number of things will contrive to kill you before you find the way out, or at least locate a loose, comfortable sweater. Evil robots, lethal drops, your own stupidity – given time, one of them will finish you off. At their best, these deaths usually feel like challenging but justifiable failures, in the manner of my lovely, lovely Dark Souls. My masochistic urge for a game that won’t put up with any nonsense is well-documented, and I was kinda hoping that Haydee would scratch that itch between sessions of Super Meat Boy.

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But at their worst, the deaths feel cheap and frustrating. I’m happy to admit that when some long-limbed android rattles towards me and I put five bullets in the wall next to his head, the fact that he proceeds to kick my notably ample arse is only because I wasn’t good enough to stop him. But when his brother sidles up alongside me with no warning and caves in my head before I know he’s there, that feels cheaper than a pre-sucked penny sweet. And with save points being few and far between, getting mangled unexpectedly is almost as annoying here as it is in real life.

Which is to say nothing of the camera breathing down your neck the whole time, because god forbid you find yourself unable to examine Haydee’s body at any point in the game. I’m sure that’ll mitigate the rage of being tackled to the ground by HAL 9000’s big brother, especially when climbing up platforms is done in two stages – the first one of which ends with Haydee awkwardly bent over the surface, just so we can see right up her exhaust port and embarrass ourselves when somebody comes into the room.

But I realise I get ahead of myself, and must describe the core gameplay ‘ere I ramble off into total irrelevance. Well, it’s not easily summarised. I suppose I get flavours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with a tiny bit of ‘dat Dark Souls added in and some classic elements of old Metroidvania, all set in locations from Portal that were considered too boring to be included in the final product. You scrabble around a clean underground lab in third person, picking up every gun, medkit, keycard and bit of ammo you can find. You also climb and jump around from platform to platform (which as mentioned, manages to feel more uncomfortably pornographic than Debbie Does Dallas) in order to move on and explore non-essential areas for more equipment that’ll help later.

The story is far less comprehensive. Our hero, presumably named Haydee, is seen in an enormous science facility, where the only inhabitants appear to be aggressive robots and dead, mechanical blow-up dolls. There are some elements we can piece together, for Haydee herself is one of these buxom sexdroids, and the fact that her unmoving predecessors can be found up ahead, all damaged from some sort of attack or fall, implies that you are not the first to try and find your way out.

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But which one of us is really in a cage? Oh, it’s the robot. Seems pretty obvious now, but it’s quite hard to see with no eyes.

Or something like that, I guess. The game honestly didn’t seem to give a rotten fig about the possibility of narrative for the time I was playing it, and the broken iHookers only seem to exist to highlight which areas are fatal to fall into. The game clearly has its own opinion on what demands more attention than story – namely white panel walls, removable ventilation grates, and jiggle physics. Lots and lots of jiggle physics.

But there are things about the game I can appreciate. The minimal HUD feels nicely unobtrusive, and clearly somebody took inspiration from Dead Space and stuck Haydee’s health bar on the back of her helmet, making it an organic part of her design. Well, not organic, strictly speaking – oh, you know what I mean.

I also appreciate the fact that the game has some genuine ambition to present real challenge. Sure, I’m not too hot about the infrequent save points and the fact you have to hunt out the items needed to unlock them, but I always love a game that actually asks that the player wake up and pay attention in order to succeed. And though some deaths feel cheap and unwarranted, most of them do feel like my error and not the game’s.

And of course, I am completely on board with an emphasis on exploration, which demands the player make note of their surroundings and return to previous areas in order to be as well-equipped as possible.  Yeah, you can charge ahead and try to smother enemies with your ridiculously-sized chest, but you aren’t likely to succeed if you haven’t been snuffling around for ammunition like a Texas-born truffle hog. There’s also something rather effectively creepy about the robotic enemies, which silently move on you with clear purpose in mind, in a manner that can only be described as “advancing.” They even generate a few organic jump scares as they lurch into view, so I can’t say the game didn’t effect me.

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Day 3 in the Kardashian manufacturing facility…

That being said, the things I don’t like are more frequent, and start to get on my plums pretty quickly. The too-close, lecherous camera is one bugbear, and the unwieldy controls are another. I also don’t appreciate the fact that the plain, unremarkable environment gets old to look at very fast, and that there’s something rather unfinished and lazy about certain aspects of the game. Character animations are few and far between, the creators seem unwilling to give the player any information about what’s going on or how to play, and the lack of story feels less like a stylistic choice and more like nobody could be bothered to properly contextualise the events.

Is that everything? It is? Because I can’t think of anything else to address before we OH FINE I’LL TALK ABOUT IT.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Is this game sexist? Well, for a while I didn’t want to think so, partly because I was still kind of enjoying the gameplay and didn’t want to be seen to associate with something unseemly. After all, I have a paltry façade of a reputation to vaguely maintain. What could be more important than that?

At first I was mainly wondering if Haydee were some subtle, elaborate satire. Our protagonist is literally a set of sparsely-covered curves with no head, voice or obvious agency. Most notably, the heroine is sporting a blank plastic panel instead of a face, which in itself is so absurd as to imply self-aware, wink-wink acknowledgement. It comes across as ridiculous to consider, so defiantly backwards in tone that it makes me wonder how seriously this was all being taken. For god’s sake, the two difficulty modes are named “hardcore” and “softcore.” Could it be that all those sputtering Tumblrites were getting their piercings in a twist over nothing more than a simple satirical statement? It wouldn’t be the first time that people on the internet went insane for something that didn’t really matter either way.

But on reflection, I’m not convinced that Haydee is a satire. It’s actually not outrageous enough to come across that way, and with no story to tap into that parody potential, it feels more genuine than anything else. When I saw that the keycards all had pictures of topless women on them, I realised that this was exactly what it looked like to begin with – an unremarkable game with a few titillating elements added to draw people in. Whether that’s fine or not is up to the individual. You might call it harmless exploitation of the kind all entertainment has been engaging in since cavemen could first draw blood and nude stick figures on rocks. Or you might call it a regressive, demeaning fantasy that we should’ve gotten over around the same time. I can understand both, but it’s probably not empowering either way. But maybe it’s not trying to be. Maybe it’s happy to be stupid, sexy fun. Maybe it’s at too high an ethical price to be worth another depressing female archetype. Honestly, I’m starting to lose interest in both this subject and the game as a whole.

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It’s an easy joke, but somebody had to make it.

Which can act as my closing point. Haydee is a little too rough, a little too minimal and a little two unimpressive to be anything more than a time-waster, unable to capitalise or develop the good ideas that dwell within it. I couldn’t be bothered to play beyond a certain point, so maybe it picks up later – but I don’t care. I have limited recreation time in my life, and I ‘aint putting those valuable hours into watching Cave Johnson’s secret fetish fall into pits and perform revealing gymnastics routines. Maybe pick it up if you see it on sale, or find yourself attracted to mannequins. Otherwise, I can’t really recommend.


4/10

Haydee is a somewhat solid premise that isn’t refined enough to hold up on its own terms, so it throws in the headless Playbot as the heroine and hopes the bouncing jubblies will distract you from your growing boredom. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.