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Despite Everything, It’s Still Yu: Trauma and identity in Prey

At the beginning of Undertale, the player character has the opportunity to look at themselves in a mirror. Interacting with the reflection gives you one simple line: “It’s you!” In the immediate it’s just a cute moment, a fun little interaction in a game packed full of them. But hours later, towards the end of the game’s pacifist route and after hours of challenges, trials, and growth, there is another mirror. It looks just like the first; even the room you find it is nearly identical. This time, however, the message upon interacting with it is different, an acknowledgement of how far the player has come and how they’ve grown: “Despite everything, it’s still you.”

Morgan Yu, the protagonist of Arkane Studios’ 2017 immersive sim Prey, also goes through an awful lot over the course of their game. Waking up with no memories is already a pretty rough start to the morning, but to then find out your life is a Truman Show-esque simulation designed to monitor your every move, then find out the only reason that simulation has been interrupted is an invasion of human-munching psychic aliens? That’s only the beginning of Morgan Yu’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Between fighting to survive, seeing loved ones die, and the constant manipulation from the other human denizens of Talos I, the only word that seems to convey the magnitude of impact on Morgan’s psyche is traumatic. Morgan is a person suffering from trauma, both immediate and from the past.

Trauma can change a person in two ways: it leaves scars on our bodies and minds, a direct impact of the event permanently changing who we are; it also prompts us to actively change, to adapt and equip ourselves to deal with our newfound reality and survive. While I’m sure the events of Prey leave plenty of physical and mental scars on Morgan, it’s this second method we particularly want to focus on. During the game, Morgan literally takes on aspects of the alien attackers, the Typhon, in order to fight back against them. The powers and abilities Morgan is granted by Neuromods are permanent effects, a kind of hardened skin put on to reckon with a new reality. But not only are many of those powers of Typhon origin, the Neuromods themselves are made from the Typhon’s organic matter; the very source and representation of Morgan’s trauma is permanently within them. Morgan carries that experience as an aspect of themselves in a very literal and physical way, as a constant part of their being and an irreconcilable change in their character.

Alex Garland’s 2018 film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is refreshingly straightforward about its themes regarding trauma, and how it becomes a part of its bearer. In the film, the Shimmer as an environment, a location, represents the traumatic events of the characters’ lives and the collective mass of a lifetime of experience and hardship. It seeks to display for the audience how that alters—and ultimately becomes an inescapable part of—the self.

The Typhon in Prey act as a similar metaphor, but with the important distinction that the internalization of the Typhon is conscious. Where the Shimmer forces itself upon its victims and makes a home in their minds and bodies, the way a traumatic experience often will, Morgan Yu intentionally takes upon aspects of the Typhon as a matter of survival. It isn’t voluntary, per se, as the choice is at the very least made under great duress, but it is active. The Typhon powers are all the ways we learn to protect ourselves from further harm after a traumatic event; the barriers of mistrust we put between ourselves and other people, the way we avoid places, feelings, smells, and visuals that remind us of our pain, the way we avoid situations or circumstances resembling those we would rather forget. The aliens are a manifestation of the changes we bring upon ourselves, both consciously and unconsciously, in order to keep moving forward through life.

Forward, specifically, through this large antigravity tube

Over a lifetime one accumulates countless scars and learns thousands of little behaviours to keep from repeating past trauma, and like a biological Ship of Theseus eventually all those little changes add up. Eventually, you have to ask if what remains is the same person. As Morgan acquires Typhon powers, the security turrets of Talos I stop recognizing them as even being human, having taken on so much of the alien biology and psychology as to be indistinguishable, at least as far as computers are concerned. Much of Prey’s narrative is focused on this idea, that someone can change so much that they are functionally a different person. The experiments Morgan was the subject of before the game’s opening were to determine how Neuromods would change the subject’s personality, and Morgan even says they no longer recognize recordings of their prior iterations as themselves. If the player helps Danielle Sho and deals with the imposter who killed her girlfriend, Sho will tell Morgan they seems like a completely different person than before the Neuromods. Mikhaila Ilyushin will say something very similar if you are honest with her at the end of her own quest, and even Morgan’s own brother Alex says he believes “the old Morgan is still in there”, implying the Morgan he sees now is unrecognizable to him.

Trauma isn’t always a big, scary event however, and it isn’t the only experience that leaves a permanent mark. Every event in our lives and every person we meet is absorbed and becomes a small part of us. In Annihilation, this is represented by the protagonists literally taking on each other’s physical characteristics, most notably the Ouroboros tattoo first sported by Anya and Kane but eventually the whole of their respective teams. Prey, on the other hand, features the Phantom enemy, a physical manifestation of psyche left behind by dead members of the Talos I crew. Every one of Morgan’s co-workers, from employees briefly passed by in the hall to close personal friends and associates, is a part of their experience, and ultimately shapes who they are. It’s theorized in-game that the Typhon are largely made up of both the crew’s organic matter and their psychic energy, that the aliens literally are the people they consume. Whether we’re talking about the experience of the alien outbreak or the physical makeup of the neuromods, in a very literal way the thing that is shaping Morgan, and changing them into a new person, is all the people around them in their daily life. This is primarily characterized through violence, because this is an action-focused video game where you blow up aliens with your mind, and also several big guns, but it isn’t necessary to interpret this as entirely negative. The people in our lives change us in a myriad of ways, for better or for worse, but either way become an inseparable part of us.

One could argue the purely human powers available through Neuromods are the positive impacts those around us have; the ways our loved ones make us stronger or the behaviours we emulate from those we admire. A human powers-only playthrough of Prey is a version of the story where Morgan has healthy habits and coping mechanisms and manages to get through their very bad day at work with no serious side effects.

Prey asks the question, can you truly remain yourself through trauma, a lifetime of experiences, and the inevitable influence of those around you? It also seems to offer a pretty firm answer: no. The you of today is not the you of yesterday. This ship is no longer the one of Theseus. But through all of this my attention is drawn to, of all things, the games Status screen, featuring the same still image of Morgan looking back at the player as a reflection in a mirror. There’s some reassurance to be found there. No matter what Neuromods you install, no matter what conditions you accrue or choices you make, the same face of Morgan is there looking back. Despite everything.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is thinking hard about sex

Video games have a complicated relationship with sex. Relationships in general, romance as a side note, but particularly sex, and all the sex-adjacent parts of life. If I ask you to think about sex in games, some will immediately remember the Hot Coffee incident, where Rockstar accidentally left code in GTA San Andreas which allowed the main character to have poorly animated, full-clothed dry humping sessions with NPCs; it was hard to swallow that as a controversy even at the time, but still occupies the industry consciousness. Some might think of Bioware’s adorably tame fades-to-black, where Commander Shepard or Thedas’ Inquisitor culminate their game-long romance by cuddling their special someone in bed and, well, you know, the thing happens.

What you won’t see very often (outside of games literally about sex) is characters in a story who are absolutely gagging for one another, consumed by sexual or romantic feelings in a meaningful way. Nobody really wants to bang in mainstream video games, basically. They might talk your ear off about their emotions and how important you are to them, or how the galaxy exploding really made them think about what matters, but they don’t get messy. It’s all sterile, calculated, friendly the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Windows 11, or a Children’s Illustrated Bible is friendly.

And then there’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, kicking in the door, covered in sweat and dirt, shirt half untucked, confused and embarrassed look on its face. Even if you haven’t played it, the first thing you probably learned about the game was that the character designs were all uncomfortably hot, and that’s part of the appeal, but beyond the superficial FFVIIR has a raw, haphazard sexuality present in every aspect of its design. The characters aren’t just sexy, they’re sexual. Human. They want one another in a breathtakingly forward manner, stopping the plot in its tracks frequently to have an indulgent pine over one of their very sexy colleagues.

Let’s take a look at Jessie Rasberry, which absolutely is her real name. In the original game, Jessie is an Avalanche freedom fighter who helps blow up a few Shinra reactors before getting unambiguously pancaked by a falling city block. In the Remake, however, she’s reimagined primarily as Someone Who Wants to Have Sex With Cloud Strife. This version of the character flirts mercilessly with Cloud, teasingly attempts to get his attention at various points, gives him gifts, and invites him to meet her parents (in order to rob them). Jessie kisses Cloud on the cheek during one mission, which makes Cloud very flustered, because he’s a very large human-shaped golden retriever. Jessie’s flirting is so overt that Cloud at one point tries to divert her by calling her desperate, and she invites him over for a date that has particularly intense sexual implications.

They’re not all so in-your-face horny in Midgar, but that same feeling of humans being humans despite themselves runs through all of the characters. Cloud clearly has heavy feelings for Tifa and weird new emotions bubbling up about Aerith, but he was a Soldier, and they never taught you what to do about awkward sex thoughts; Tifa is a powerful and independent woman, and she still seems very ready to try and make herself known enough to get some romantic attention; Aerith is the quirky Zooey Deschanel next door, however she dedicates a good portion of her energy to making herself come across as sexy and capable as Tifa. Even Barrett—whose sexual exploits are limited to the ones that produced his daughter—exudes a messy vigour in every scene.

A tremendous amount of developer energy has gone into making sure players don’t just find these characters sexy, they find them to be sexual. Ridiculous skin textures, realistic sweating, and hyper-realistic anime-style hair exists not merely to impress the audience, but to impress upon them the three-dimensional nature of the cast. Yes, they’re sexy, but they don’t want to have sex with you, they want to have sex with each other. Which is far more interesting.

That’s what’s so intriguing about the overwhelmingly horny nature of this game, it treats the character’s sexuality as an integral part of the storytelling process. Where many video games may have sexy character designs simply to titillate the player, FFVIIR uses it to increase the emotional and intellectual connection we have to these fictional people. Beyond the literal plot points about terrorism, capitalist hellscapes, living planets, human experimentation, Remake makes us care about the individuals and their dirty thoughts. Aside from Jessie’s eagerness, a lot of the steaminess is communicated with 10% dialogue and 90% body language. In fact, have you seen how good these characters look when they’re touching each other? Do you know how difficult that is to achieve with 3D graphics? Just the scene in the ghost-infested train yard, where Tifa and Aerith both grip Cloud’s oblivious and perfectly-toned arms, must have cost a fortune in technology, time and labour. All to give us another indicator that these people absolutely want to get nasty.

This isn’t a game that shies away from sex or the sexual, and it doesn’t get weirdly defensive or judgemental about it either. Aside from Cloud’s reflex deflection of Jessie’s advances, nobody ever shuns anyone for being sexual or expressing themselves. Midgar is a safe place, at least down below.

Having that sort of acceptance allows them to use these aspects of the characters—and aspects of the human experience—in broader pieces of the game. On several occasions during the game, you have the chance to determine what sort of attractive outfit a character wears. In Tifa’s case, this is done by choosing the description which you think best suits, rather than by just picking the hot one; for Aerith, the dress she wears is picked by the game based on how many people you chose to help with side quests in the Wall Market. Both require you to connect on some level with the characters and the world.

The section where you need to enter Corneo’s mansion, infamously played for laughs in the original because Cloud needs to dress as a woman, is transformed into a complex minigame where Cloud needs to learn to dance as a gateway to learning to express his true self. It’s not accidental that this part of the game uses the language of burlesque, a performance art known for allowing participants to harness their sexual confidence. So many parts of the game that seem frivolous and ridiculous at first glance are actually using the raw humanity of the characters to bring you closer to them as a player.

On a macro scale, this is all serving the bigger story as well. Flirtation, romance, and sex are all framed as a necessary distraction from the soul-sucking dystopia in which these characters live out their lives. Midgar is a horrible place filled with inequality and death, but the people in the slums survive and thrive because they maintain what makes them human. And yes, that includes sex, sometimes. Compare the Wall Market—which we first see as a seedy nightmare full of debauchery and criminals, but later come to embrace as a melting pot of people simply trying to enjoy themselves—to the cold, harsh architecture of the Shinra Headquarters. Shinra represents the cutting away of everything human, flattening and removing imperfections until only things that are ‘useful’ remain; the Wall Market is excessive, loud, filthy, and it has texture. You can sense the stories behind every corner in the Market, and imagine all the inappropriate acts happening behind every door. Nothing sexy has ever happened in the Shinra building, unless you find black marble and expense reports arousing.

Final Fantasy VII Remake’s sexy and sex-distracted characters exist to tell us the same thing that the story of the game does: life is messy, and exciting, and it makes you want to kiss people and make horrible, sexy mistakes, and enjoy all the weird parts. If you take out the sex, the dirt, the fumbling looks and awkward touching, the colour, then you’re killing it. So I sort of hope other developers look at this oddly horny JRPG and see that games could stand to be a little less sanitised and a lot more emotional, to match the unsanitary, emotional people that play them. Let more video game characters bang each other, it’s good storytelling.

A serious study of FFVIII summons, Part IV: Red string on a conspiracy board

The price we pay for using the GF. This article contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII. You can forget reading this and return home by clicking here.

Time passes. And with the passing of time, comes the end. In Final Fantasy VIII’s world, the end means the compression of all time and space, so the end is also the beginning. Are we any closer to finding out what exactly Guardian Forces are and how they work, after all this? They’re pretty much everywhere, for one thing, and they eat your thoughts; they can control the flow of time and space with their god-like powers even though they seem eternally trapped; and they’ve been subjected to endless experimentation that nobody really wants to talk about. It’s tempting to cast them off at this point as a sort of unknowable anomaly in Squall and friends’ universe, but at the same time their ubiquity suggests they must play some vital role in how things work. At the end of the official GF list, there’s even a strong indication that they are involved in the shaping of reality itself, with their forms and powers far outstripping anything other entities are capable of, apart from Ultimecia.

“GF gives us strength. The stronger the GF, the stronger we become.”

There are no more Guardian Forces to pick apart, though, right? The list is complete, the endgame approaches. Actually, it turns out there are a few optional, pseudo-GFs floating around the game that are surprisingly relevant to the discussion. And, despite FFVIII’s reputation for a scattered and unfinished narrative, one of them might be the key to figuring out what the whole game is supposed to be about. That’s right, it’s been at least two discs since summons had any visible role in the plot, but maybe it’s about to turn around. Which would be particularly nice given the effort the game puts into making them seem like a big, scary, mind-eating problem at the beginning, all the while jamming them indiscriminately into the heads of children.

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Deep in the Centra Ruins, beyond the tonberry infestation and past the giant metal diamond, a god lurks with a challenge. Get to a specific room in the ruins within a 20 minute time limit and you are confronted by a huge masked figure on horseback who demands you to demonstrate your strength. This is Odin—named after the Norse god of war, death, and a dozen other minor concerns—and he will become your companion if you can slap him enough times before the clock hits zero. Curiously, Odin doesn’t fight back in this battle, but if the timer runs out at any point he unleashes his signature attack, Zantetsuken, which instantly kills the party and ends the game. Beating him doesn’t add him as a controllable force, but actually gives the player a 12.9% chance of Odin appearing to Zantetsuken enemies in any battle (excepting bosses, tonberries and cactuars), granting an instant win. When he appears, the sky darkens, he rides in on his trusty white steed, and his sword literally cuts the 3D models in half.

What’s interesting isn’t so much Odin himself, but the place in which he appears. Centra was a civilisation said to be extremely advanced and doing very well for itself right up to the point where monsters exploded from the surface of the moon and reduced the entire population to a dusty memory. Yes, in case you had somehow forgotten, monsters in the FFVIII universe come from the moon, and periodically get space-blasted down to the planet’s surface. With a little research, I discovered the reason this happens is because of gravity; when all the moon monsters gather on one side of the moon they all just get dragged off into space in an event very poetically referred to as the Lunar Cry. This had been going on for tens of thousands of years, but part of the reason it destroyed Centra was that it brought down a massive pillar of crystal with it, obliterating almost every sign of the world’s largest civilisation. The only pieces left are the Centra Ruins, Sorceress Edea’s orphanage, and the mobile shelters that eventually became the Gardens. Keeping up? Don’t worry, none of us are.

Centran architecture is a strange mix of Roman styles and futuristic technology, and the ruins provide plenty of both. Odin’s room houses a giant throne and is decorated on the outside with gargoyles, but pipes and wires run inside every wall and piece of flooring. Entering the final area requires moving gemstones and then putting a security code into an ancient device. It’s seemingly impossible to discern what these ruins were designed to be before the Lunar Cry, in much the same way that details about the Centrans is basically non-existent.

But hold on, that throne is bothering me. It’s huge, and it’s clearly part of the ruin, which means it was built to specifically be that size. That could mean Odin was around and functioning as some sort of Guardian Force before the calamity. However, the huge chair does fit with one theory that Centra was a society of very large people. Giants, even. This is based on a lot of conjecture, of course, and bits of evidence that might not really connect, but stick to the path for a moment. Adel, the other evil sorceress in this game, is demonstrably giant, towering over every other person in the game. Her size is never explained, and sets her far apart from the other characters in the game in terms of physical form. It’s conceivable, given the diaspora of the surviving Centran population, that she descended from Centran stock, and her size—combined with her sorceress abilities—allowed her to gain power in Esthar. Centra was also, incidentally, very into the whole idea of sorceresses, which would mean Adel having power passed down to her through living in that magic-friendly society makes a lot of sense.

With that in mind, Odin’s throne perhaps isn’t a seat of power for some outrageously-proportioned god, but a throne for a normally-sized Centran. Without knowing the purpose of the ruins before the pillar, it’s hard to extrapolate much more. But, given that GFs can clearly be shaped by environment, thoughts, and events, perhaps Odin is a reflection of what happened to Centra. It could be that all that death, all those lost souls, coalesced into one masked figure of vengeance that was doomed to seek out the strength that could have saved its people. And like the chaos of a moon-based apocalypse, he can only even manifest that cursed power at random. The wire-filled room where you find Odin also continues a theme throughout FFVIII of melding technology with magic, and perhaps hints at the idea Odin was partly created through those memories and souls continuing to exist in a digital form.


If the player collects Odin before boarding the Lunatic Pandora to find Adel, they will be confronted by Seifer and Odin will automatically be summoned. In this case, Seifer will use Zantetsuken Reverse to turn the tables on the GF and slice him in half, permanently killing him. Odin’s sword will then cut a hole in the fabric of spacetime and another entity, Gilgamesh, will retrieve the sword. If the battle lasts long enough, or if Seifer’s HP is depleted, Gilgamesh will appear to cut Seifer down and join the party. Gilgamesh also appears at random, with a 3.5% chance, but has four swords to choose from. One is Odin’s, and acts the same as it would for him; Excalibur and Masamune do heavy damage to the enemy, while Excalipoor does exactly one damage to foes.

All of this is very exciting, and Gilgamesh’s design is pretty neat, but as a Guardian Force he is essentially a collection of Final Fantasy references wrapped in a nod to an Akkadian poem. As such, there’s not much he can tell us about the world of Final Fantasy VIII, save for affirming its obsession with random events.

Boko, MiniMog and Moomba

Hold on, do you remember the PocketStation? It was basically a memory card that doubled as a Nintendo Game & Watch, it ran various software connected to different PlayStation games, and it was very hard to ever see one outside of Japan. If you did somehow have one, you could have used it to play something called Chocobo World and in turn used that experience to level up a Chocobo in FFVIII called Boko. This tiny chocobo can be summoned into battle using a specific item, and may put “being murdered by a baby chicken” at the top of the list of most embarrassing ways to die in the game. If you play even more of PocketStation classic Chocobo World, you can even unlock a moogle called MiniMog, who can heal GFs, and a Moomba.

All of this is nonsense, and not even the good kind of Final Fantasy VIII nonsense with time travel and secret parents. However, let me just say that Moombas are fascinating because they are actually one of the final evolutionary stages for the Shumi, and melty slug people who turn into tiny lions is exactly the right kind of nonsense. Shame it doesn’t tell us anything about Guardian Forces.


Speaking of lions, Final Fantasy VIII, in its very quirky and unhinged way, actually decides to drop the wildest and most telling piece of Guardian Force lore into the very final battle of the game, with the nonchalance of a smoker flicking a cigarette butt into the gutter. During the fight with Ultimecia—the reality-bending witch from the future—reaches into Squall Leonhart’s mind and plucks out a Guardian Force. Screaming about it being “the most powerful GF,” the sorceress casts into the floor, and an anthropomorphic purple lion with bat wings crawls out of the abyss to ruin your day. In the Japanese version, Ultimecia states that she is summoning the entity Squall sees as the most powerful, and when Griever lets loose with his big-time attack, Shockwave Pulsar, Ultimecia describes it as the GF’s true power. Shockwave Pulsar transports the party to a featureless energy field, where a beam of energy whites out the entire universe. Yikes. Griever takes on whatever name the player decided to give to their lion ring during the Battle of the Gardens, cementing the idea that this creature is a pure manifestation of Squall’s thoughts.

Okay, wait a minute, now we have definitive proof that Guardian Forces can be formed from nothing more than the anxious thoughts of a deeply-traumatised teenager. Griever didn’t exist, and then Ultimecia just brought him to life so he could slap the hell out of the party. This is moderately terrifying information, as it suggests that there exists the power inside any individual in the Final Fantasy VIII universe to create a literal god from nothing. Think hard enough and suddenly something infinitely worse than Doomtrain is setting off a nuclear magic bomb in the main street. Yes, it required history’s most powerful sorceress, but Odin appeared out of nowhere, Diablos exists outside of time, Pandemona crawled out of the abyss unprompted, Eden was a failed experiment, and Cactuar is literally just a cactus that got angry. FFVIII presents us with a world where the gods are as fickle as the ancient Greek pantheon, but can also spring from nothing like the worst Stephen King horror story. It is a nightmare universe.

Then you beat Griever, maybe, and the nightmare is over. Except that Ultimecia junctions herself to the GF, melding their bodies and powers together in an unholy mass of flesh. And that reminds us immediately of another case where this happens: on Lunatic Pandora, Adel increases her own power by junctioning herself to Rinoa. Body horror aside, this is upsetting news for the delicate barrier between reality and the chaos beyond the curtain. There is no functional difference between a Guardian Force and a normal human being; on a practical level, they occupy the same mechanical space. But we’ve just learned that GFs are also pure thought transformed into reality, which means that every character in FFVIII is half a step away from being nothing but a thought. Nobody really exists, outside of the fact that other people think about them existing. And then we remember that Centra is a nearly forgotten civilisation, that people are encouraged to erase their memories by junctioning GFs, that the central villain wants to remove all perspective from reality and exist in a single point. All of this runs through your mind as a mad witch climbs inside the physical manifestation of your own anxieties right in front of you. Griever is the single most existentially terrifying moment in this game, and, I remind you, he turns up as a final battle afterthought, 60 hours into the story.

Simply losing our minds

This series started with a simple question: what are Guardian Forces? Four articles later, the answer appears to be that they are everything. No part of the Final Fantasy VIII universe escapes their grasp, from the advances of technology, to the psychological effects of war, to the deaths of millions, to the workings of reality itself. At certain points it appears they were created by humanity to serve a purpose, but many of them simply seem to exist, or were brought into being by accident. They represent our greatest fears, our conflicting values, the desire to protect and destroy; they serve humanity, but this seems like a voluntary position that could very easily be reversed at a whim.

Ultimately, GFs seem to be an attempt by the game to represent the collective unconscious, which is an interpretation that fits nicely with this Final Fantasy’s more holistic approach to worldbuilding. Nothing in FFVIII makes sense in isolation, yet everything is connected in the end. Centra’s destruction, the creation of the Gardens to fight the sorceresses, a lost father who becomes the head of a secret civilisation, these are all utterly bonkers elements that end up fitting together conceptually, if not literally. The GFs are much the same; each of them represents something about the world of FFVIII without necessarily fitting into it. It’s easy to imagine a different story about this universe, where the role of these vastly-powerful thought monsters is scrutinised thoroughly. But maybe that’s what happened to the scientists at the undersea research base, they looked into the abyss and it looked right back at them.

What’s wild is these summons could have easily just been big monsters that appear when you want to hit things. Yet they exist as this kind of commentary on the tenuous relationship people have with reality. Every time the main characters summon a GF, a little piece of their identity is devoured to make room. Each time they fight, the world they fight for slips away a bit more. Whether you view them as a commentary on the damaging effects of war, the nature of reality, or a dozen other plausible ideas, Guardian Forces are a pervasive energy in Final Fantasy VIII. And much like the game, they seem to resist understanding by design.

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Quickhacking Cyberpunk 2077: ACAB

I spent the early part of my first full day in Night City punching cops in the face. In my defence, it was the direct result of me trying to be a good person; I found a woman being assaulted in the corridor outside my apartment, so I shot the guy in the head. The woman thanked me, then started screaming because I had a gun out, and that’s what NPCs do when you have a gun out. Anyway, somehow my frankly heroic action alerted the cops, and when I went out onto the landing two of them started shooting at me. Naturally I punched them until they were unconscious, which takes 3-4 punches, in case you’re curious.

More cops came, more punching. Suddenly I realised exactly how easy it is to bottleneck the police and keep beating them until they pass out. Uh oh.

Eventually they stopped, I’m not sure why. Perhaps they just ran out of police, or they realised it wasn’t worth it to lose thirteen police officers to a mad redhead in the slums. A few minutes later, when I accidentally used a poison gas grenade on a food stall vendor, I discovered something horrible and sinister about why the police kept coming until they stopped coming: they don’t actually exist. Rather than walking in from some pre-approved outside location or being dropped off by cybercar, they spawn in from nowhere, pre-filled with sound and fury signifying fascism. Four armed officers and two NCPD drones manifested from the inside of a pile of boxes. In a more metafictional environment this would almost be a clever interpretation of the relationship between the police and civilians, cops representing an omnipotent force that watches your every move and isn’t beholden to the rules normal people are forced to follow. Like physics. Here it’s more of a shortcut to avoid coding in a more complicated solution to getting the police to harass you. Still, the end result of this—and the fact that apparently LOOKING at cops for too long makes them angry enough to shoot you in the head—is a fear of the police that I’m far too jaded to experience in a more realistically-coded setting. These officers are moody, unpredictable, chaotically violent and duty bound to cause harm. I’m going to do my best to stay away from them.

The inconsequential, unnamed NPCs in general have a similar transient quality. Like Schrodinger’s Citizens, they only have form when you look straight at them. When I ran from that merchant I poisoned, he fled his stall while suppressing the urge to vomit; when I backed up, his stall was already being looked after by a brand new procedurally generated gentleman. NPCs are swiftly removed and replaced as you walk around, which is, I’m sure, a technical boon, but is also a big kick in the nuts for my sense of immersion. Nobody you meet matters, even by the standards of a video game nobody, because they’ll be wiped and reformed anew before you can say Creepy Watson. Again, this would be a pretty cool setup for a story about reality being a simulation, and the world of Night City even has its own virtual reality system, but in our reality it’s just a curious quirk of the code.

Since we’re moaning about NPCs, it really bugs me that Cyberpunk 2077 keeps up the grand sci-fi tradition of portraying poor people as hunched, miserable losers, huddled in their garbage slums and trying not to be too oppressed today, thanks. Most folks in this first area (inside the Judge Dredd-style apartment block) mope around like someone took a big shit in their cereal, or sit outside literally begging. It may come as a surprise to developers that low income folks, even in a dystopia, are perfectly capable of having a normal, happy day.

On a more positive note, I did run into a loud man spouting conspiracy theories in the street, and not only could I engage him in a bit of conversation, but after a minute or so some California-accented tourists came to get a selfie with him. There are brief moments where the world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels very alive, and they’re very appreciated.

V goes to the Ripperdoc—one of Cyberpunk’s cyberdoctors—and gets some new eyes, a new hand. We get dragged into a big new job that will set us up FOR LIFE. It definitely won’t go horribly wrong. For one half of the planning process we need to go visit the woman who requested the heist. I kind of like that we have to wait until night time because it’s a bar. She gives us a briefing in a room with a very naked hologram and then we get our first taste of a BRAINDANCE, which is a fancy way to say “virtual reality tape recording.” These sections allow you to walk or float through a recorded event and pick up little details that give you necessary information. In this case, we get to case the top floor of a fancy hotel so we can get around the security later. It’s fancy and I like it. Reminds me of the memory breaking bits from Remember Me. Remember that game? Probably not. It was fine.

I’m getting distracted because there’s a LOT going on in Cyberpunk now. These sequences really bring into sharp relief how linear the prologue was; V can chat to various NPCs, decide in what order to do things, go off to check out a few side missions rather than advancing the story. It feels more like the game it wants to be now. A corpo woman named Meredith wants to help me get a thing for the thing we have to do as long as I let her upload a virus to the gang who currently have the thing. I speak corpo back to her with a special dialogue choice and she gets angry and drives off. It feels good to have a little control, and to see the shape of my V emerging. Now all I have to do is head to this gang hideout and get a machine from them as efficiently as possible.

Okay, I can explain. See, Jackie didn’t want to sit down and I wasn’t paying attention to my responses so… anyway we had to kill them all.

They seemed like they wanted to rip us off anyway, and now we have the thing! But I had to destroy a lot of lives to get there. It turns out that my V is a big fan of swords and shotguns, and specifically the pleasing effect of switching between them while running around like the world’s clumsiest ninja. Didn’t need to sit down afterwards. Particularly liked that the end of this section gave me the option to sneak around the boss to escape, then it gave me the option to not brutally murder him after I refused the first option. Anyway he’s dead.

Before the big damn heist section, I was contacted a few times by a cop with an eyepatch who wanted me to do cop stuff. In Cyberpunk 2077 you can trip over crimes in progress (assaults, robberies, people not filling in their tax returns correctly) and intervene to gain a reward and the respect of the police force. No thank you. The woman on the phone will also send you bounty jobs, the first of which is to literally kill or otherwise neutralise a “good” cop who wants to expose corruption in the force. I cannot for the life of me figure out if this is supposed to be irony, or satire, or completely straight-faced villainy. Suffice it to say, I’ve been deliberately ignoring any possible way to assist the police. It’s perhaps unintentional, but refusing to do anything they want me to do actually instills a weird sense of pride, as if V was shouting FUCK THE POLICE from her car window.

Act one snowballs pretty quickly towards this big job, which requires a lot of hacking and sneaking and includes a bunch of enormous plot reveals I’m not going into here. It was a lot of fun and the writing here is pretty solid. I may have even felt some emotions. Also the robot cab driver is a good example of how to do fun AI characters so take note every other game that isn’t Fallout New Vegas.

It does get a little prologue here for a while, in the sense that it throws a big plot reveal at you every 30 seconds for what felt like an hour. This explodes, that character dies, this character dies, this person was really this other thing, betrayal, emotions, you get dumped somewhere terrible, you come back out, a car chase, another explosion, a crash, a blackout, a montage of being incapacitated, more talking. It’s all good, mind you, but there’s a long time when you’re just watching interesting things happen to a character you’re supposed to be controlling. There appears to be a struggle the narrative designers had with working out how to tell the story and allow any sort of player choice at the same time. It makes me think of the Hades approach, where every story tidbit is isolated and fed to the player while they go about their actual gaming business. Here, the story sometimes feels arbitrarily walled off from the flow of the open world, actively working against the pillars it’s built around.

Somewhere in this maelstrom of CONTENT, the actual title card comes up, now we’ve been playing for hours. Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077, I guess.

SPEED ROUND: Don’t Threaten Me With A Mixed Time

  • RIght at the start of this act you find out that there’s a fight club in the city. Why is there always a fight club?
  • All the advertising and posters in Night City still feel like they come from a different game with much stupider writing.
  • I came across a minor accident scene where one guy had rear-ended another and they were on their phone trying to sort it out, and that felt pleasingly authentic.
  • There was an unexpected instant death moment in the plot maelstrom and I am here to tell developers DO NOT.
  • Don’t put musical instruments in your video game if you won’t let me play them.
  • I still don’t know why you’d bother going non-lethal in this game, nobody has explained it to me.

After what seemed like a very lengthy prologue, we finally get into what Night City is actually about: accidentally causing huge amounts of violence and telling the cops to get in the sea. I may have missed the point, or maybe the game isn’t making any points. Next I hope to get more involved in the sidequests of Cyberpunk 2077 and put even more points into sword powers.

A serious study of FFVIII summons, Part III: Everything is fine and normal

The price we pay for using the GF. This article contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII. You can forget reading this and return home by clicking here.

Hello for the first time, whoever you are, and welcome to this exploration of the messed-up monster pantheon that is Final Fantasy VIII’s summoning system. What’s that? You say we’ve done this twice already? Oh, right; once to go over the normal, brain-devouring god-beings that live in all manner of creature and classroom computer, and again to discuss whether they represent the undoing of all reality and the eternal suffering of all who live inside. Sorry, my memory gets a little foggy sometimes. It’s been firmly established that these spirit beings can bend time and space to their will, but also that you can trap them with enough science, and that—all things considered—the fact that they definitely eat the brains of people who use them is actually a mercy in comparison with their true power. Also some of them are cute.

“So if we keep relying on the GF, we won’t be able to remember a lot of things?”

Right on time for a story that began in a school and is about to go into space—because space is where they keep the giant magic dictator lady shrink wrapped for everyone’s protection, even though her mad thoughts still infect all TV and radio transmissions, yes that’s extremely messed up—the way you find summons, and the summons themselves, begin to lose cohesion. At the beginning it was clear that these were powerful spirits which lent their power to those seen as worthy, but lately it’s beginning to look more like they might be manifestations of will not tethered to any particular ideology.

Do GFs even exist outside of the user’s mind? When we went to the Fire Cavern on the first disc, were we simply bringing Ifrit to life by thinking hard enough? That would certainly explain how every student is supposed to catch him to pass their exams, even though only one Ifrit exists. I need to centre myself if I’m going to unravel these mysteries. Let’s calm down and look at the next GF.


Okay, it’s a train with a skeleton for a head. Doomtrain is a mile-long, fully functional steam train that also happens to be entirely organic and situated in the cold depths of space. When summoned, a track made from magical fire stretches into the heavens and the cursed locomotive rockets through the void before slamming into the enemy at full speed. Doomtrain causes minor poison damage, but its main reason for being is inflicting every status effect in the game, all at once. Think of it as a giant, skin-covered STD carrier with a screaming humanoid face on the front. Yes, the bulk of this summon is actually constructed of bone and skin, presumably from the bodies of its many victims. Then again, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it also has a tail, meaning it must be a whole creature of some kind. Why the Doomtrain exists in space is unclear, but it can’t be a coincidence that the most likely time to pick it up is when the characters themselves are journeying into orbit.

Perhaps it exists as yet another reminder that the universe is vast and terrifying, filled with unknowable entities who care nothing for the petty squabbles of man. Maybe there are worse things out there than an angry sorceress who wants to make a time sandwich, and some of those things are trains.

Accessing the Doomtrain summon is only possible by obtaining an item called Solomon’s Ring and a collection of strange objects. All this information is found in a magazine called Occult Fan, which documents strange occurrences in the style of a trashy “aliens are real” tabloid. The four issues detail the existence of the ring, and obliquely refer to three types of item: tentacles from a Marlboro, an upgraded remedy, and steel pipes. Players need to grab six of each—yes, that makes 666, the number of the beast—and use the ring, which is definitely how you set up a satanic ritual and should not have been allowed. Nobody is supervising these children and so far they have absolutely brought at least four actual nightmare demons into the world.

Doomtrain is part of a long tradition of ghost trains in legends and folklore, and a similar tradition in Final Fantasy games. FFVIII in particular is full of trains, has a train heist minigame, puts you on several trains as part of the plot, situates an entire rebel force on a train, and has one of the main characters dangerously obsessed with riding on trains. So perhaps it isn’t the most left-field thing to suddenly have a demonic train, rife with disease, rattling down from the cosmos to enact judgement on the enemies of the cause.


Let’s step back from the precipice of madness for a moment, shaken as we are by the spectre of an organic death train, and look at something a little more grounded. By Final Fantasy VIII’s standards. Late in the game, after you have your own personal spaceship, you can discover a hidden location out in the middle of FFVIII’s vast ocean. Landing here reveals it to be a Deep Sea Research Center, a mobile facility designed to research draw points and replicate or improve existing para-magic technology. If none of that made sense to you, don’t worry, half of this information isn’t even available unless Zell is in your party when you land, because this game hates to just give you anything. Apparently, the researchers travelled all over the world looking for the largest magic draw point on the planet, and found it here. At some point it was a abandoned, and, given the researchers are still around, it’s safe to say they left on purpose.

Side note: what is it about mobile buildings in this universe? Both Galbadia and Balamb Gardens were “coincidentally” built on flying research stations, and now there’s this research center. Also the largest concentration of scientists in the present day live in space. I guess when the world is full of moon-spewed monsters, the idea of not having to walk around is very appealing.

Anyway, inside the station you can find a large glowing core that spits out an astonishing amount of random encounters. Approaching it will trigger a dialogue in which you must answer questions-three. After the first two correct answer you need to fight Ruby Dragons, and after picking the third invisible option (yes, that’s right) you are thrust into battle with Bahamut. This dragon is blue, with red wings, and honestly fits fairly solidly into what one might expect from a fantasy dragon—except that it shoots energy beams from its mouth. Like Ifrit and a scant few others, Bahamut also speaks directly to the party; the aforementioned quiz confirms the creature as the archetypal “only those worthy may challenge me” sort of big bad. At the beginning of battle, Squall refers to it as “the great GF,” which means this is a summon at least those trained at Brain Spirits University have already heard about, and that it’s considered to be one of the more powerful examples. Further information about the Research Center, as well as the fact that Bahamut is there at all, suggests the researchers were studying Guardian Forces there, and seeking to harness their power to aid their probably-sinister cause. Bahamut’s response to this is to be surprised by the use of the term “GF,” and the realisation that they are there to suck him non-consensually into their minds causes him to reveal his fear of humans. This is strong proof for the idea that the people of this world are basically keeping summons as powerful slave workers, drip-feeding them experience and pet food in exchange for indentured servitude.


Before we move on to something else very weird, we should briefly mention the Phoenix, an avian Guardian Force that can be obtained by using a Phoenix Pinion in battle. A pinion is a round gear used in drivetrain mechanical systems; it’s also a word used to describe part of a bird’s wing. There’s no way to tell which meaning the item name refers to.

Phoenix, after being summoned the first time, will appear in 65/256 cases when the party has been killed or petrified, reviving dead party members. It does not cure petrify, because Final Fantasy VIII actually hates you and wants you to suffer. Outside of Final Fantasy, a phoenix is a mythological bird which is either reborn from its own ashes or is born from the ashes of a dead phoenix, depending on who you ask. It seems thematically appropriate to have this creature constantly immolate itself to save the lives of teenagers thrust into the fires of war by adults who could not care less for their safety.


There’s a cactus wandering around the world map that is so gigantic it can be seen from space. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s out there, waiting, shooting needles across national borders, twirling its Dick Dastardly moustache. It lives on the aptly named Cactuar Island, which we can assume is an island so uniformly populated by Cactuar that humanity decided to let the terrifying, dead-eyed plants hold sovereignty over the entire landmass. If you land on Cactuar Island and approach the giant cactus, you get to fight the Jumbo Cactuar, which looks exactly like the other enemies here except for the moustache. And it’s flipping huge. Defeating the big boy will automatically give you one of the small boys as a GF, perhaps as an offering from the Cactuar Nation in exchange for leaving them alone.

The line between Guardian Force and Just Some Monster We Keep in a Box gets a little blurry here, since the Cactuar GF is basically just a Cactuar that has to do your bidding. By now though, you should already be desensitised to the suffering of other living creatures so it doesn’t matter too much. Anyway, did you know the Cactuar is called Sabotendā in Japanese? Which roughly translates to “cactus pretender.” Whereas Cactuar translates to “cactus you are” or something. I made that up because Cactuar is meaningless.

Tonberry King

Continuing the theme of ordinary monsters becoming summon magic, Tonberry is another GF which requires wading through a bunch of normal enemies, then fighting a giant version. Unlike the Jumbo Cactuar—which appears instantly on the map—the Tonberry King only makes an entrance after you kill at least 20 regular Tonberry in the Centra Ruins. Basically, once you are considered a Tonberry-themed serial killer in the eyes of these tiny green creatures, their leader and most powerful hero steps in to save their society. And you murder him too. Tonberry, when summoned, emerges from a sort of portal in the floor, slowly walks across the screen and stabs the enemy with a really big knife. That sounds truly awful, but it’s actually okay and even good, because the victim has a little cute sweat drop first and the knife makes a funny DOINK! sound effect that appears in a cartoon speech bubble. Funniest stabbing I’ve seen for ages.

There is an interesting rumour surrounding Tonberry which posits it might be the GF that Selphie junctioned when she was younger. When the party all realise they grew up in the same orphanage and just forgot because of the Ghost Brain Worms, Selphie admits to once junctioning a GF while training one day, but laments not remembering its name. Tonberry does have a quite high starting affinity with Selphie, and it is conceivable that her Garden sent her to train near the Centra Ruins because it’s a dangerous and stupid place to train literal children. Like most FFVIII theories, this is all unprovable and probably wrong.


Throughout this entire exploration, you’ve no doubt been thinking that these summons are not nearly bonkers enough; that their animations aren’t as outrageously long as they could be; that there’s room for so much more haphazard religious referencing and unhinged art design. Good news: we’re going to talk about Eden.

At the bottom of the Deep Sea Research Center, where you may have already captured Bahamut, there is a vast dungeon. Reach the bottom of this dungeon and you get to fight Ultima Weapon, one of Final Fantasy’s recurring challenge bosses, put in many games just so players can show off how much grinding they’ve done. Inside this weapon, you can find the Eden GF, which is a big disc that has wings and the body of some form of angelic torso on the underside. While the other summons, apart from Pandemona, have some sort of recognisable design which allows the human mind to comprehend their form, Eden is a nightmare of runes, body parts, allusions to technology, and vague shapes and colours. Its name is a twofold reference, calling to mind the Christian Bible’s Garden of Eden, where humans first learned to hate their bodies, as well as Final Fantasy VIII’s use of Gardens as a PR-friendly name for harsh military schools. Is Eden a failed attempt by the research teams to merge a Garden with a Guardian Force? Did a GF that resembles the Gardens manifest itself after the Garden schools rose to prominence? Are all Gardens a psychic memory of Eden, filtering through into the design ideas of the Garden architects?

Eden’s attack is called Eternal Breath, and it is frankly a little difficult to put into words. First, the screen fizzes with electronic static as Eden’s face (or face-like object) appears; Eden drops down into a digital grid, overlaid with satellite images and video screens of blueprints. The grid extends to encompass the enemy, then the unfortunate creature is dragged across the field of view until it lines up with the large blue gem on top of Eden’s disc. A strange symbol appears under the enemy, and we zoom out further to reveal that the entire planet displays the same symbol, and it transforms the celestial body into an impossibly huge magical egg timer. The symbols activate, firing the enemy out from inside the planet and into the void of space. The beam of energy carrying what must surely be the most unfortunate monster in the game continues into the centre of a nearby galaxy, which detonates violently and becomes a supermassive black hole. Nobody should ever summon this horrible thing, lest we all disappear, screaming and inside-out, ejected from reality forevermore.

Watching each individual moment of the Eden summon is upsetting, and trying to piece it all together is a fool’s errand. Parts of the summon suggest the entire world of Final Fantasy VIII exists within a simulation controlled by Eden, and that all concerns of sorceresses and teenage soldiers are petty squabbling conducted by worthless ants. If this is what the researchers pulled out right before shutting their work down, you can understand what made them run. If Pandemona and Doomtrain are harbingers of the cosmic end, Eden is the apocalypse of horror knocking on the front door.

And that’s it. No more summons to look at, and the world of Final Fantasy VIII is eternally doomed by its inability to perceive the vast scope of nightmares that exist just beyond the veil of reality. May the gods have mercy on them all. Actually, no, hold that thought, because there are just a few more Guardian Force-related issues to discuss. Next time we delve into the most unsettling, forbidden place of all: the mind of a teenage boy.

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Even in a dream: Bloodborne, hope, and keeping horror cosmic

Plant eyes on our brains, to cleanse our beastly idiocy. This article contains mild spoilers for Bloodborne. Click here to be taken back home.

Bloodborne opens in a dark room, with the player lying on a doctor’s examination table. A silhouetted figure in the darkness speaks of blood and mysteries to be solved, and a contract to be signed. Even when he rolls into the light, his face is obscured by hair and bandages. The player passes out, and wakes to a nightmarish world plagued by dessicated werewolves and tiny, pale messengers with sideways mouths. But we never see the world outside this bad dream, so maybe it was always like that.

Cosmic horror is difficult in any medium. By definition, the genre is concerned with the unknown and unknowable, the idea that the reality we take for granted is a tiny box that exists in a grander, more terrifying universe. Lovecraftian stories invite us to think about what makes us most uncomfortable, and discover everything is many, many times worse than we could have ever imagined. Good cosmic horror is characterised by a certain sense of hopelessness in the face of unrelenting and incomprehensible forces that exist at a scope which makes humans less important than the dust in their lungs. But it also walks a knife edge, presenting stories in which characters are always seeking that unattainable knowledge, looking for answers, believing that a mystery can be solved and everything can finally be okay. Comic horror is about struggling, even when the robots say resistance is futile, even when the cultists finish their chant and the sky opens, even as they lock the door to your padded cell.

No game understands this contradictory interplay between the known and the unknown better than Bloodborne. What begins as a gothic adventure as obsessed with blood as Castlevania and as keen on hats as Abraham Van Helsing slowly and expertly peels back its own skin to reveal darker and darker truths underneath. Bloodborne drags players down so gradually and with such sweetness that you are likely to have a moment, far too late, that leads you to wonder how things got quite so bad on your watch. What Bloodborne sees, more than any other game in the genre, is the need for hope.

Players, like the protagonists of a cosmic horror story, need to believe there is a reason to keep struggling. They need to see a way forward, even if the path is made of eyes and the moon that lights their way turns a sickly orange red. Which is why every tiny mechanical choice in Bloodborne works in service to that goal, as the world itself sprouts segmented legs and the flesh falls from its cursed bones.

In the opening alone, you can see the perfect setup: a mysterious figure sets up the existence of a mystery, sending you in the direction of further knowledge, and character creation is tied to the signing of a contract, which unambiguously positions the player as making a choice to experience whatever comes next. You are very explicitly asked to shape your whole experience around this conscious desire to unravel the mysteries of Yharnam. This is key to the cosmic horror experience, characters frequently reach a point where they could easily back away from the shadows ahead, but instead they move forward. It’s akin to the broader horror trope of the teenager entering the clearly-dangerous haunted mansion, except the cosmic horror protagonist enters mind open, seeking. After a scene involving monsters big and small, the game gives players control and situates them inside a familiar setting: a medical clinic.

Familiar, yet different, of course. Everything in the early parts of the game is a creepier, more unsettling version of something at least passably recognisable. The townsfolk are townsfolk, although they seem far too tall and far too violent; the buildings are impossibly tall as well—and arranged as if they grew organically from a central point—but they recall memories of real-world gothic architecture; werewolves feature prominently among the city’s threats, but their fantasy origins are well-entrenched in the public psyche, meaning they are, for a scary story, a kind of expected occurrence. Because of this groundwork, placing the familiar among the unsettling, when recognisable aspects fall away it feels all the more horrible. When the werewolves slowly become discoloured and eventually mutate into twisted wolf marionettes, burdened with extra human arms and legs where none should be, we remember what they used to be, and the dread of realising how far from reality we’ve drifted is brought home.

But you have to get there, first; keep your spirits up long enough to get to the cold, unfeeling end of the world. One big way Bloodborne does this is with From Software’s skillful use of shortcuts. Exploring the world can be a confusing and daunting experience, since the geography of Bloodborne’s universe is only euclidean because the PS4 demands it. When players head down a stray alley, or jump from a hidden ledge, only to catch an elevator back to an earlier location, the euphoria is a direct response to the dark and pointless world surrounding them. You’re not just excited because you unlocked a shortcut, you gouged the smallest, brightest nugget of hope out of the impassive wall of nightmares blocking your path.

Finding a shortcut in Bloodborne is a sign that progress can be made, even against the worst horrors. The game, despite its difficulty, wants to be explored, picked apart; it wants to be known. So it encourages discovery, and the foolish cosmic horror protagonist, buoyed by their meagre success, slips a little further towards madness.

The game brings otherwise mundane mechanical aspects of the experience and ties them to the specific needs of the genre. Healing is accomplished by consuming blood vials, used in what Yharnam refers to as “blood ministration,” meaning that with each use the player is being drawn in and becoming a part of the town. Using the Madman’s Knowledge item, encountering bosses, or witnessing other important game events gifts the player with insight, a consumable resource that can be used not only to help with certain character stats, but also to warp the world. Previously invisible creatures appear in all their mind-burning glory, inanimate things come to life, new enemies begin to crawl in. Active participation in the world of Bloodborne is mandatory for all of this, and the many positive and negative results of this provides another intoxicating push.

Many of these mechanics have familiar counterparts in the other Soulsborne games. But where a game like Dark Souls provides them as tools to survive in a harsh fantasy world filled with dark creatures, Bloodborne makes it very clear that every action you take as a player is weakening your tether with reality. Knowledge is dangerous, fear is justified, and ignoring those ideas is a choice you are making. Even From Software’s penchant for leaving world-building to be discovered rather than gifted to the player is a service to the cosmic dread. Learning about how the mechanics and items work, examining the bosses and enemies, is necessary to play the game, but is also inviting further decay into the mind.

Cosmic horror is often shorthanded to large space monsters with face tentacles and madmen screaming in spooky asylums. But the core of the genre is far from the vast, unknowable intelligences that oversee reality; at a human, knowable level, it’s about the feeling that something isn’t right. Cosmic stories are the shadow that looks like a man standing in the corner of your bedroom until the light reveals it was only a coat, except the light never turns on. They’re the niggling feeling that you could know more about the world, and the knowledge that you shouldn’t. Where other games unceremoniously slot in Cthulhu-adjacent monsters and sanity effects, Bloodborne is content to be the slowly spreading smile on the lips of a helpful doctor. It sits, confident in the horror that exists below the surface and perfectly fine with the idea that you might never get far enough to see it. The fingers were always there, softly stroking your forehead.

Perhaps there’s a little Lovecraftian DNA in every From Software game. Each of them asks players to trust the game to lead them to something interesting, slowly absorbs them into the world, teaches them secrets that are incomprehensible to an outsider, and leaves them not viewing anything in quite the same way afterwards. A hunter is a hunter, even in a dream. And there’s no way back.

Sad dads and dead mothers: The limited misery of in-game parenting

Terrible news: you’ve become a parent. In a video game. Someone died, or something horrible happened, or maybe it was great and magical to begin with and then the horrible thing happened. Maybe you died, and that’s awful because you were a parent and now your child is alone in a dangerous world; maybe everything would be fine except your offspring has been kidnapped. Whatever the reason, you’re the parent or guardian of a human child and you’re in for a rough time.

Unless the game is about children, young people have only two purposes in video games: to be annoying sidekicks (and immediately expelled from your party in favour of a dog, or a drunk old man) or to be a source of trauma and growth. If someone has children, the player will be given the chance to see them struggle with parenting in the worst possible ways allowed by the theme. Their significant other will die and they will have to go out into the world with their son and teach them to survive, which is difficult and challenging even for the actual God of War. They will need to rescue the child from death and worse, all the while thinking of the nightmarish fates that could be befalling them, a la Dishonored, or Silent Hill. Even if things start in a positive place, emotionally stable and functional, the slap of video games’ heavy hand is never far away. Shadow of Mordor kills everyone in the Ranger’s family right after you stealth kiss your wife in the opening, leaving him to angst for all eternity, Fallout 4 shows a glimpse of the joys of being a new father then steals your son 200 years in the future, and The Last of Us spends 15 masterful minutes making sure you appreciate its adorable father-daughter relationship before tearing out your heart and stomping it into the dirt.

The games with traumatic parenting stories aren’t necessarily bad; many of them represent the finest art the industry has ever produced. Here’s the thing about being a parent, though: sometimes it’s nice. In fact, most of the time it’s wonderful. Having kids can be a transformative experience filled with moments of joy, laughter, love and admiration. Is it hard sometimes? Absolutely. I have three boys, and some of the most difficult and stressful times in my life have been because of them. But much of the parenting experience is happy, or normal. Most days are about making lunches and listening to them talk about absolute nonsense for hours, or taking them places and watching them just run around being unfinished human blobs.

Yet the overwhelming purpose of children and parents alike in game narratives is to die and generate sadness, or to live on and be a burden which may or may not lead to an important lesson. This trend is especially brutal when it comes to mothers, who almost never survive long enough to matter much to anyone beyond the emotional value of their memory. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Detroit: Become Human, Fallout 3, Heavy Rain, God of War, The Last of Us, Dishonored, and The Walking Dead to name all kill off their mother figures (or hide them away) with the game barely even begun. There are plenty of others. It’s bad enough that there is a real-life stigma around parenting that implicitly suggests your life after having a kid is a whirlwind of chaos from which you can never escape. This is not an imaginary point that needs to be hammered home by every second video game.

Stories need conflict, you may retort. Nobody wants to see a happy family dealing with nothing in particular. It’s a common assertion about narratives in general that action requires characters deal with obstacles. But defining potential conflict for parents purely in terms of how uncomfortable, stressful and emotionally taxing the act of raising children can be for the characters is narrow thinking. The Sims, while not a narrative-driven game, manages to cast parenting in a realistic light, positioning the act of having children in the first place as a player choice, and attaching positive motivations to them by investing parents and players in their success, however they choose to define it. Dream Daddy does an admirable job of representing characters who manage to be both happy, functional fathers and also human beings who want to date other hot dads. And it may be shallow, but the constant inclusion of a supportive mother figure in each Pokémon game—whom the player can visit throughout their adventure for moral cheerleading and mechanical benefit—is a much appreciated break from the cavalcade of tragedy.

My favourite example of a gaming parent is the King of All Cosmos. Katamari Damacy’s arrogant, clumsy and probably-drunk father figure is an excellent example of how a parent-child relationship doesn’t need to be played as if the game were competing in the misery olympics. The Prince and the King have a strained relationship at best, and the King is by all accounts a pretty horrible, messy person, but the tone is light and the ridiculous dialogue still hints at a genuine emotional connection. They have fun, they connect, they roll up big balls of stuff and it’s not a metaphor for the difficulties of having a dad who’s codpiece is the size of the moon.

Consider, even, that something as vast, varied and vital to the world as parenting could even be used as a positive motivator in game narratives. Imagine if a father adventured out into the wilderness to care for his family, not because they were sick or in danger, but because he wanted to be a good parent. Imagine an RPG about a mother of five who gains her power by connecting to her children and forming some sort of Mother Voltron to smite evil. Maybe it would not entirely break the whole concept of a video game story to have two happy, healthy parents who are alive and care for their living children without spiralling into a pit of despair, and perhaps during the week they are super spies that take down Nazi robots. There’s even a wealth of material sitting, unused, with regard to games that weave the act of parenting into whatever other activities the player might engage in. Why stop at romantic companions in Mass Effect when you could also parent through dialogue trees and watch your space kids grow up to be the perfect space adults?

These are just some possibilities that become apparent if you simply stop looking at parenting as just a way to tell stories about how parenting is really hard. Everyone already knows it’s hard. Think instead about the excitement and magic inherent in the idea of taking control of a new life and guiding it along one of a million potential paths toward adulthood. Think of the feeling you get when you’re allowed to take care of animals in games, or given free reign to design, build and destroy a whole city. Raising kids isn’t a burden, it’s a power fantasy, and games love power fantasies.

Perhaps now we’ve gotten all of these crying fathers and absent mums out of our system as an industry, we could start to look further into the spectrum of life experience that parenting represents. Given the importance of raising children in pretty much any society, it seems a waste to only ever look at things through the grim lens of everything that could possibly go wrong. Many have postulated that the overall increase in stories about fathers dealing with the tribulations of having kids is a symptom of so many game designers reaching their 30s and 40s while also having children of their own. If that’s the case, and given that the overall saturation of video games in society means, statistically, a lot of parents play games, then it might be time for the industry to grow past its “look how grown up we are” phase and start telling a wider range of stories, including ones about happy, healthy parents.

Let’s talk about killing animals in video games

There is no shortage of murder in the world of games. If you play them regularly, there’s a good chance you brutally slaughtered hundreds of people, monsters, aliens in the last week alone. It’s fine, really; one of the more admirable aspects of the hobby is that it allows regular folks to dip their toes into realities that they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—normally access. Call it catharsis, or curiosity, or feeding the brain worms we dragged kicking and screaming from the primal, dangerous origins of humanity; killing things in video games is fun and good. Even if there is way too much of it.

Besides, society was being desensitised to the human cost of violence long before games were dominating the entertainment discourse. Films had a 100 year head start, while books, art and the theatre have been around for at least a century longer, filling the public’s mind with death, dismemberment and daily visions of the worst tortures imaginable.

Then you get to animal murder, and things get a little more murky. Recently there was a minor controversy surrounding the announcement that Naughty Dog’s upcoming post-apocalyptic sadness simulator, The Last of Us 2, allows players the heavy, emotion-laden choice of whether or not to kill dogs. You see, sometimes you will be hunted by enemies with their own attack animals, and if you kill the angry pooches their owners will be sad; loudly sad, in the game, because you killed their dog. The stated purpose of this potential trauma, according to a Polygon interview with Naughty Dog co-game director Anthony Newman, is to heighten The Last of Us 2’s theme of “regrettable violence,” the narrative thrust of the series being to force players into situations where they need to participate in awful acts while also being made to recognise the consequences of these actions. Retailer GameStop made news more recently for a piece of promotional text advertising the game, highlighted in a viral tweet. The text somewhat gleefully (with typical marketing enthusiasm) describes the feature “Dogs” as including moments where NPCs will “cry out in absolute horror when they discover their lifeless furry best friend.”

As games dig more and more into emotional storytelling, seeking to create meaningful narratives rather than simply provide a play experience, it becomes useful to examine how the presentation of heavy material is handled. Basically, we need to ask what it means to kill an animal in a piece of art, and what it means to kill that same animal in a video game.

Despite the wide variety of artworks on offer from the entire history of human civilisation, animal murder still isn’t particularly common. When it does show up, its generally treated as a pretty big deal, substantially altering the plot or the state of mind of a major character. Old Yeller tells the story of a faithful dog that must be put down after a bite turns him rabid, devastating the family; Marley & Me also uses the death of a beloved pet to elicit sadness from the audience, albeit this time at the end of a couple comedy; John Wick’s hero is dragged back into a world of violent professional assassination after his dog (a gift from his deceased wife) is killed. In all of these examples there is an implicit understanding that killing a dog ‘on-screen’ is a serious decision to make, one that ripples outward. Quotes from Naughty Dog suggest that The Last of Us 2 understands this as well, at least enough to play it for emotional effect. But there are two reasons this sort of manipulative storytelling isn’t always fit for games: consequence and repetition.

The consequences in video games for even an action as serious as murder are frequently rather minor. Immediate consequences usually include removing an obstacle from your path, alerting more foes, and, in very rare examples, turning one faction of NPCs very slightly into enemies or friends. Allowing player choice to dictate narrative is a slippery slope, of course, and much harder than the average person would think, but even examples of heinous acts impacting the plot of a game further down the line by design could be counted on a handful of fingers. There needs to a tangible cause-and-effect at play if you want the audience to take anything away from a situation except “thing bad.” Killing dogs, for example, is an undeniably terrible action on paper, but if a game’s only message is that it’s a shame you need to kill these dogs while also very much encouraging you to kill them if you think you need to, then there is no message. Thoughts and prayers for the game universe.

In the Sam Raimi comedy-horror film Drag Me To Hell, the main character, Christine, is a loan officer who denies an elderly woman an extension on her mortgage. The old woman happens to be the very magical kind of old woman, and places a curse on Christine which will see her dragged to Hell after three days. The events of the film see Christine defeat the curse and seemingly escape damnation, but the final scene shows her being pulled into a hellish portal by demonic forces. Why? Well, as part of her desperate attempts to remove the curse, Christine sacrificed a kitten. There is no other point in the film where Christine does anything unambiguously terrible; even the mortgage refusal is in a morally grey area, simply being a nasty part of her job. The cat, however, died for purely selfish reasons. An innocent was harmed.

In comparison, while the game isn’t out yet, the discussion around them centres squarely on the moment-to-moment decision and reaction of dog death. You decided to do something that was bad and necessary, now you have to move on and live with yourself. Which is quite easy to do, since you didn’t really kill a dog, and it didn’t significantly impede your progress. But you regret the violence, maybe. Thing bad.

Players will always have another chance, however, as unlike other forms of media, games function on loops. The most narrative-heavy big budget game still pushes somewhere between 15 and 150 hours, and much of that time is spent replaying existing mechanics. Nothing wrong with this idea, but it does mean that there’s a good chance you will have the chance to kill several dogs in the course of your journey. Perhaps dozens, or hundreds. And here we come up against the second half of the problem: something that was emotionally resonant the first time around will not necessarily retain that resonance the 20th time. Killing one dog is a tragedy, killing a million is a statistic. Because games thrive on this concept of repetition, you can’t simply rip a meaningful misery from a crafted, author-paced story and jam it into a player-controlled universe. The main character in I Am Legend has a faithful puppy companion helping him navigate the zombie-vampire infested city streets, but when the dog is bitten and has to be mercy-killed by the hero on screen, we feel the trauma and import. At the climax, this knowledge stays with us and subconsciously prepares us for the reveal that our hero is actually the villain of the piece, having murdered so many of the aforementioned creatures. While he made the right choice in killing his dog, that image leaves us ready to believe his good intentions are causing harm to others. If the script was rewritten to include the hero actually mercifully strangling 20-30 dogs, most of the audience would likely already see him as a monster well before the twist.

This sort of dissonance isn’t limited to games where you kill dogs, of course. Much has been made of how flippant and friendly Uncharted’s Nathan Drake remains, even as he mows down hundreds of men for flimsy reasons; the Tomb Raider reboot took great pains to show players how distraught Lara was at the idea of killing one deer to feed herself, and even showed her struggling to take the life of a dangerous man attempting to assault her, but several dozen hours of bombastic murder porn dulled that revelation somewhat. There are also plenty of games where you kill normally-lovely animals without a care in the world. The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption position animals as either a threat to your safety or a resource to be hunted, Resident Evil sufficiently redesigns their dogs to make it clear these are no longer creatures worthy of empathy.

Animal death, when given focus, will almost always be shocking, it’s wired into every human to be horrified by the concept, the visual, the implications. Regardless of why that is, it makes for a powerful storytelling tool, but games can’t just use that tool as if this were a tightly-edited film or novel. If you’re going to kill a fictional dog, and you want to convince everyone that you’re making an important point by doing so, then the way you make that point had better be just as thoughtful as your philosophical musings. Using it to make the audience suffer, and allowing the natural flow and mechanical setup of video games to undermine even that paper thin idea, makes for a shallow exploration of violence and morality.

The solutions to the quandary—making game narratives meaningful without undermining them with what would otherwise be good gameplay, and without cheapening the content—could be many and varied. But I’m reminded of a recent experience with the God of War reboot, in which I killed a seagull. There are seagulls wandering the skies of video game Midgard, and it is indeed possible to kill them, watch them explode into blood and feathers. But there’s no purpose to it, no meaning; you get nothing from the experience apart from a general, niggling feeling that your son just saw you kill a bird for no good reason. In a world full of horrifically violent finish moves and constant death, it was a bird minding its own business that made me think about my actions. Maybe that’s part of the answer, devaluing the violence to give players the space to make their own decisions about what feels right and wrong. GameStop definitely didn’t tell me about the seagulls.

Building character: The slow burn of Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II has the longest and most in-depth character creation system ever seen in a video game, clocking in at around 30 hours. After the initial, perfunctory decisions about lip colour and combat class, the game quickly allows players to craft their ideal fantasy protagonist over the course of several years. When they’re done shaping the soft clay of their unique Hawke into the Champion of Kirkwall they always wanted, the credits roll and the game is over; your quest is complete. Flawless efficiency.

In Origins, the first Dragon Age, BioWare created a universe that was brimming with possibility. Like many other big RPGs, it centered player choice and an ability to affect the world around you. The titular origins were important in setting up where the Grey Warden had been in their life, and what contacts they might already have, but there was a strong focus on the idea that the player had a very powerful role in shaping the destiny of fictional Ferelden. Player decisions were largely external, and also very large: save an entire race of people by risking the safety of another, kill mages to avoid them becoming a danger later, execute the ruler of a nation because you don’t like him very much. Dragon Age II instead opts for an inward-looking approach, where the outcome of events is de-emphasised in favour of putting the spotlight on how the main character reacts to narrative moments and the people around them. It’s less important what Hawke decided to do with the Qunari than how it shaped his or her view of the world.

This shift in priorities is reflected in the way dialogue functions in the game. Superficially, it’s similar to other Dragon Age titles, Mass Effect games and other modern RPGs: the player is given a choice of different responses, all of which either embody a particular emotional response or are purely informational. Diplomatic or helpful responses are friendly and non-confrontational, aggressive or direct responses are generally the opposite, and humorous or charming answers are for when Hawke wants to be sassy. What makes the system in Dragon Age II so interesting is that these responses will slowly warp the mind of the player’s Hawke, bending them further towards one of those three personalities. From the very first dialogue choice in the game, a system begins tallying a player’s responses and choosing a general tone for Hawke based on those choices. While early in the game, players might find themselves having to pick the sarcastic option themselves, late-game Hawke might offer a witty barb of their own accord.

This has a nominal effect on the overall flow of the narrative (the game will never take away any important choices) but makes a huge difference to the way the main character is perceived by the audience. Rather than being a simple mouthpiece for player choices, or a static face and class decision made in minute one, Hawke becomes a malleable character who is growing and changing as events unfold.

Altering the concept of an RPG to focus on the long-form creation of one character isn’t wholly done by mechanical means. Everything in the narrative of Dragon Age II is designed to support the idea that Hawke is the centre of this story. The game opens with a simple and oft-used framing device: the storyteller. Varric Tethras has been captured by the Seekers of Truth, and is being asked about the ‘Champion of Kirkwall’ by Cassandra. The Seeker wants to know how the Champion started a war between the mages and templars in the city, and Varric—being a bardic sort of chap—is going to tell her in the most roundabout way possible. This framing of the entire game as a story reinforces the mythic idea of a hero with a benevolent hand in matters far beyond their station. Behold the mighty champion, see how their decisions shape the world we live in. Except the reality of the story fails, on purpose, to bear that out; Hawke is no doubt an important figure in the city and present for many of the mad things which occur there, but Varric’s story frequently makes it clear that Hawke was often swept up in events beyond their control, and that tensions would have escalated regardless. By presenting the audience with the winking and unreliable narrator of Varric Tethras, it invites the player to question not just the events they witness but the role their ‘hero’ might even play in them.

So, if the story of Dragon Age II wants us to see that heroes aren’t always the most important part of a story, what does it want us to see. If you look at the companions in this game, compared with others in the series, there are some clear differences. Where in Origins and Inquisition, the main character is flanked by powerful, important and driven individuals, Hawke gathers a group of misfits, folks barely holding on to their place in the world. Fenris is a slave, consumed by revenge and despised by most; Merril is an elf cast out of her own clan thanks to her relentless pursuit of forbidden lore; Anders is a mage on the run from everyone. Through the story, the characters form a strong bond with Hawke and are drawn into the plot by that bond, rather than a menacing external threat, like The Blight, or a giant green hole in the sky. While not explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to extrapolate that if Hawke had not come to Kirkwall almost every one of her companions would have been killed by their respective obsessions or problems. With this reliance on the player character, the narrative further reinforces the idea that who Hawke is holds more importance than what they do.

And what does Hawke get out of all this peripheral heroism? What do they get as a reward for being the Champion of Kirkwall and offering snarky commentary as magic civil war breaks out? Nothing good. From the moment they arrive in the city, the Hawke family are forced to claw their way back into society, participating in organised crime and generally letting folks step all over their dignity. Where the Grey Warden Hero of Ferelden dies a martyr, or perhaps lives long enough to become a monarch beloved by all, and the Inquisitor becomes a similarly beloved hero, Hawke mainly deals with anger and death. Regardless of the player’s choices, one of Hawke’s siblings will always die in the first act of the game. The other either dies later, is forced into isolated servitude, or actively joins the enemy to the player’s cause. Hawke’s mother is kidnapped and cut into pieces, then reassembled like a terrifying maternal zombie.

Hawke provides the player with a sympathetic, broken canvas on which to paint a picture of what they think a champion looks like. With the narrative framed around the character instead of the events they participate in, and with the mechanical tools already in place to allow for shaping the way they behave, players can take an active role in deciding what kind of character they want to build. And, since the narrative is never structured to require heavy involvement from the protagonist, players can feel comfortable tweaking their personality and world view right up to the final scene. Rather than deciding how the character players envision might react, they can have a more loose idea of their behaviours, and be guided moment to moment, leading to a more collaborative and improvisational process, akin to creating a Dungeons & Dragons character.

So who is Hawke? More than most other RPG characters, Hawke is a hero shaped by whoever plays the game. She or he is the sum total of all the decisions made from moment one to the end of the epilogue. And they’re always changing, just like a real person.

Quick and the Dead: The lie of split-second choices

Asking questions that have no answers is part of being human, Markus. This article contains spoilers for Detroit: Become Human and Life is Strange. Click here to be taken back home.

A shot rings out, and you press X. Too slow, the bullet goes into your stomach. You fumble with the new dramatic camera angle and try to glean some small piece of information about the scene. Again, you were too slow. If only you’d looked a little further to the left, you might have seen the prompt to call for help. Anyway, you’re dead. Sorry. I trust you had an immersive time.

Detroit: Become Human, and many games like it, frequently asks you to make fast decisions to decide the fate of characters and situations. Sometimes the consequences are small, like an ally trusting you less in the future; sometimes they’re big, like death. These quick choices come in many forms—choosing between dialogue options, picking from two paths during a chase, mashing a button fast enough to open a door—and are supposed to simulate the speed of real choices, as well as the responsibility of owning them. But how well do they actually convey those ideas to the player? Does it ever really feel like you have a hand in the fates of these characters?

Let’s discuss Connor dying in Detroit’s news broadcast building, and Life is Strange’s Kate Marsh jumping off a ledge. These are both dramatic, permanent events which force in-the-moment decisions; both of them strip away some player agency to impress the urgency of the situation. Connor first, though. In many timelines he doesn’t die, but we’re only interested in his gruesome, preventable, frustrating death. While interrogating a set of androids, one of them manages to rip out Connor’s power supply and pin him to a table with a kitchen knife, which is rude. Getting out of this situation with your life requires the player to handle a shaky camera (already not Detroit’s strong suit in general) and press a specific sequence of buttons while a timer counts down. The camera difficulty is deliberate here, an attempt to replicate the physical stress and mental uncertainty of a traumatic injury. At this point in the game, regardless of your nuanced dialogue choices or investigative skills, Connor’s future rests on the player’s physical capabilities matching up with the control system’s operational ability.

In the following scene—if you’re still alive—Connor chases the android into a corridor and needs to make a three-way fast decision when the suspect grabs a gun. One of these choices kills you, with almost nothing by way of warning. Again, the game prioritises quick reactions over thoughts, reflex over considered decision-making.

Kate Marsh’s attempt to commit suicide on the roof of the school dormitory is no less stressful. Not only is a friend of main character Max driven to take her own life, but Max’s usual ability to turn back time is out of action, which means anything that happens in this scene is irreversible. Stuck on the roof, alone with Kate, the player must rely on their negotiation skills and the information they picked up about Kate so far. Much like the rest of the game, this scene plays out as a series of dialogue choices, and the wrong decision will lead to Kate leaping to her death. But for much of it there’s no literal timer, nothing hurrying the player along beyond their own desire to resolve the situation; and the mechanics of the scene are in-sync with the previous play experience. Everything you did up to this point has prepared you for the scene, so even though your powers are gone, you feel comfortable making the right call.

Detroit’s approach, while outwardly more realistic, ignores external factors like distractions, accidental button presses, and familiarity with the controls required. It also leaves players feeling unsatisfied because their fate is in the hands of a reflexive, physical action even if the focus of the narrative is normally testing your mental and emotional abilities. The story becomes “did I press the buttons in time” instead of “did i make the right choice.” In addition, a lack of contextual information leaves players unable to make an educated choice; without proper context, the likelihood of an unexpected outcome is high. The end result is players feeling cheated out of their planned path through the narrative, with no easy way to reverse the mistake.

Character death is something of a canary in the coal mine when it comes to this sort of decision problem, even in games otherwise lauded for choice. In The Witcher 3, players can encounter the sorceress Kiera Metz, and eventually come to a narrative point where she and Geralt disagree on a particular issue. Many players will be blindsided by a particular dialogue path, which ends unexpectedly when Kiera suddenly decides to fight Geralt to the death. Wow, we were having a lovely dinner naught but a few hours ago, you’ll think, as an angry blonde woman fires lightning into your chest. Assuming the player doesn’t let Geralt die, they’re forced to kill Kiera and left confused by the interaction. Again, the lack of context is what causes consternation, as there’s little indication before the battle that Kiera will react so poorly; with some digging and hindsight, one can glean the probable reasoning is her fear of being hunted by the mad king, but in the moment, when the decision is presented, players are walled off from the information but still expected to make the choice. It’s a scene which stands out by virtue of the rest of The Witcher 3 being so dedicated to providing narrative nuance.

Contrast these with Life is Strange, a game built with a narrative conceit that allows for choices to be reversed, pondered within a certain time frame. Max can rewind time, up to a few minutes, and (like the player) retains the information she gathered before the rewind. The player’s ability to act quickly is sometimes hinted toward but never becomes the focus of the decision, since players can decide to skip backwards if events fail to go their way. Serious situations are still possible, and they can definitely still end in failure, but they never rely on physical capabilities in a game that focuses on mental acuity. Players can retain the consequences but also take responsibility for their actions, given the appropriate context.

Designers of such fast choices would argue that forcing players to make snap judgements is a better simulation of making decisions in real life. You choose, and life goes on. No take backs just because the outcome causes discomfort. Except, of course, there are a thousand ways to take back a decision in real life, few of which are ever simulated in games. Maybe you say something rude, then apologise; maybe you drive down the wrong road, so you turn around; maybe you get into a fight and realise halfway through that you should back off. What a game like Life is Strange understands is that it’s better to emulate the idea of choice, because a simulation will fall short. You can’t go back and convince a character you didn’t mean what you said, but you can rewind time until it never happened. And just like in real life, even when everything is smoothed over, you still feel the sting of the mistake.

So, should Connor die? There’s no reason to make him immortal, and part of the allure of Quantic Dream et al’s games is choosing your path. The idea of heavy, consequence-laden decisions is perfect, conceptually, for the medium of games; indeed, you could argue that giving players choices and making them mean nothing is disingenuous at best, and poor design at worst. But for the death to be meaningful, for players to actually care about the outcome, and for them to take responsibility for how the story plays out, designers need to let go of the notion that a decision needs to directly reflect the real version of the same choice. Games consistently tweak the time and space of video game situations to present a particular view or provoke a certain emotional reaction. A fast decision doesn’t need to be fast, it just needs to feel fast. Picking a path should test the player in ways that are appropriate to the game’s mechanics and message, rather than be simple motor-skill and reflex challenges. Shocking twists at the hands of player choices don’t need to be spoiled ahead of time, it just needs to feel like the logical result of previous events.

Connor doesn’t die, of course, even if he does. Detroit: Become Human’s story does not function without the awkward detective Pinocchio, and, soon after his blue-bloodied corpse has been appropriately cried over, they dispense another copy from the Connor Factory. This is, perhaps, a tacit acknowledgement by the developers that such a heavy consequence can’t be entered into quite as quickly as the design requires. That maybe the game should treat the survival of the character as seriously as the script. And honestly, most players would probably be fine with a dead Connor, as long as it felt like it was their fault, and not because Connor refused to look left.