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Editorial

How Life is Strange and The Last of Us Show the Importance of Small Moments

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Life is Strange

Small moments matter. Amid the bluster of the modern gaming market—with its focus on scale, setpieces, and service models—this simple truth is too often overlooked. Most development teams aim to fuel player interest through adrenaline-fuelled excitement to the grave detriment of more tender emotions. Life is Strange has always been different, and its latest release, the ‘Farewell’ bonus episode to Before the Storm, epitomises the series’s love of the prosaic. In story, structure, and tone, the episode resembles little else so much as The Last of Us: ‘Left Behind’, and these two titles, together, reveal how powerful mundanity can be.

Adventure is often part and parcel of the gaming experience as a signpost for progression, but it is underused as a means of probing the deep well of human emotion. In this respect, ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ stand out. Both eschew the typical high-profile romp associated with the idea of adventure (whether it be a rage-infused rampage through mythology or simply trying to survive across the myriad battlefields of World War ll) in favour of more grounded narratives. Rather than fury and death, the stories within these two titles revolve around friendship and loss. The events that give rise to thematic insight seem trivial—children at play—but the sense of innocence inherent in such moments hardens their impact. For the first time in their lives, Ellie and Riley in ‘Left Behind’ enjoy the simple pleasures of being young as they explore a run-down shopping centre. Meanwhile, Max and Chloe in ‘Farewell’ try to recapture the feelings of being eight years old by spending the day pretending to be pirates. The adventure of each pair may appear to lack the gravity of, for example, Kiryu Kazuma’s latest quest, but levity and depth are not irreconcilable.

Beneath the childish games, each of the four girls is struggling with internal conflict, which enhances the purpose of their play. Max and Chloe are both determined to make the most of their time together before Max leaves Arcadia Bay for what could be the last time. Meanwhile, Ellie and Riley, developing into adolescents and their sexuality, are uncertain of whether their feelings for each remain platonic or are transforming into something deeper. In both instances, the adventure is a veneer. Through play, the girls aim to set aside the confusion and heartbreak that plagues them, though these turmoils continue to emerge in the looks they share and the words they speak.

TLOU Left Behind

Their reluctance to confront their emotions stems from the fear of tainting the purity of their youth with what can only be considered as more adult worries. Faced with these tumultuous concerns, the friendships seem fragile. As questions of love and loneliness loom large, a single mistimed word or action could plunge each pairing into awkwardness from which it may not recover. Neither game makes these fears explicit; instead, they emerge organically through words, actions, and the wilful abandon with which the girls dive into their play. Beyond simple desperation, the duos’ enthusiasm for escapism betrays their youthful naivete, as they have not yet realised that the travails of life are  inescapable. However, as both titles tell coming-of-age tales, the move from innocence to experience is integral. Knowingly or not, Max, Chloe, Ellie, and Riley are all on a fast track towards tragedy that will forever reshape their lives. The events portrayed in ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ show different sides to characters previously known, but also how they came to adopt their more familiar personas—how Ellie transformed from carefree to cynical, and how Chloe consolidated her streak of rebelliousness and came to define herself through it. That so much is conveyed without reams of dialogue is a testament to the skills of developers Naughty Dog (‘Left Behind’) and Deck Nine (‘Farewell’) and their ability to create layered characters that more resemble real people than the cookie-cutter heroes of many AAA games. However, the emotional intensity of these stories would not be so great if not for wider context.

Prequels are often maligned as being unnecessary extensions to stories that would otherwise have run their course, but foreknowledge can change the way a player, reader, or viewer engages with a narrative. With their broader insight into the stories of Life is Strange and The Last of Us, players of both ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ begin the titles aware that tragedy, of a sort, is coming. Understanding that each pair of girls will be torn apart almost forces the user to slow down and prolong the experience by appreciating the small moments, whether they be engaging in friendly banter or taking a polaroid as a keepsake. The games become more about a journey tinged with sadness than the destination tainted with tragedy, creating a profound sense of melancholy. The stripped-back acoustic accompaniment of each title also emphasises the pensive mood by conjuring the spectre of loneliness and the feeling of a solo musician playing to themselves in a darkened room. As such, both titles transform from the typical, pedestrian process of trudging through a prequel into engrossing adventures for the player, revealing unplumbed depths and exploring thematic avenues that their precursors did not. Though the adventures they relay are almost microscopic compared to the high-stakes stories of Life is Strange and The Last of Us, ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ are immensely valuable additions to each franchise because of the unique insights they provide into the mindsets of their young heroines.

Many story-based games attempt to use a heart-rending event to create an emotional investment from the player. However, many titles rely on the shorthand of familial bonds to make users care, rather than taking the time to build the relationship through small moments. To be fair, being expansions ‘Farewell’, ‘Left Behind’, and other similar content have the advantage of being able to home in on narratives that full releases cannot justifiably ruminate upon, but they also show the importance of age-old storytelling advice: “show, don’t tell.”

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Editorial

Three Single-Player Games to Watch Out for in July 2019

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Three Single Player Games (July 2019) - Sea of Solitude, Fire Emblem Three Houses, Wolfenstein Youngblood

July, the middle of winter down here in Australia. Even in the bizarre New South Wales climate, the biting cold makes for a great excuse to stay inside and play games. 

Weirdly for single players, quite a few prestige games this month include additional co-op modes. With acclaimed designers behind them, such games will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of accommodating multiple players, as too many games have done in the past.

Sea of Solitude

Release Date: July 5, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

At first blush, Sea of Solitude looks like yet another story of a young adult struggling with questions of identity and mental health while exploring a beautiful but harsh fantasy world.

Actually, that’s what it is. ‘Quirky, life affirming indie adventure’ is a whole cottage industry these days, but the fact that such games are now more prevalent should never dismay.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a masterpiece of refined design and storytelling, and Sea of Solitude appears be something similar—this time dealing with a fantastical vision of depression that turns ordinary people into literal monsters.

Players take charge of Kay, who has sought out the eponymous Sea—or rather, a flooded city based on Berlin—in the hope that there is a cure for monstrosity. However, despite its name, she is not the only person in the Sea. Avoiding the other monsters of the Sea seems to be a major part of the gameplay. These tense encounters are likely to provide rhythm and variety to the adventure and keep it from being a just walking simulator. (Not that being a walking simulator is inherently a problem.)

Although published by EA Originals, one would do well to remember that EA the company does not actually profit off the Originals that they publish. With a focused story and themes that still are not often explored in bigger games, Sea of Solitude should be of great interest to single player fans in a month otherwise dominated by multiplayer titles.

 

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Almost certainly the biggest single player release of the month, and tied with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 as another massive Switch exclusive, Fire Emblem: Three Houses might be exactly what single players need right now.

Lately the Fire Emblem franchise has exploded in both its popular profile and sales success, buoyed by a hunger for both deep anime RPGs and polished tactics games. Three Houses seems to have doubled down on exciting trends and features in both genres: particularly a Persona/Harry Potter inspired magic school setting and an even deeper tactical battle system that ditches the rock-paper-scissors for more nuanced character progression options. As with many Japanese RPGs, the story is also a major focus and hinges upon a time-jump.

The early part casts the player as a teacher at the Officer’s Academy, situated in the center of the game world and attended by students from the three most powerful nations. Five years later, the second and likely larger part concerns the drama between the player’s teacher and their former students, whose nations are now locked in a massive three-way conflict.

As is to be expected for a series finally coming back to consoles after a long time on the 3DS, Three Houses is a massive technical leap over its predecessors. The game boasts better realised battlefields, more detailed armies, and a slick animated style that appears much more consistent compared with the three or four different art styles on the 3DS.

With such improvements, as well as the overall pedigree of the Fire Emblem brand, Three Houses should have no trouble satisfying single player fans looking for a meaty middle-of-the-year RPG.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

The recent Wolfenstein revival series is such a remarkable achievement in traditional shooter design and great, if goofy, sci-fi worldbuilding that the co-op focus of this latest instalment is somewhat disappointing.

Yes, as with F.E.A.R. 3 and Dead Space 3, following a well-received second chapter the Wolfenstein series now pivots to a co-operative focused chapter. Though the game is not a mandatory multiplayer experience, combat encounters and puzzles have been redesigned to accommodate the two player mode, giving single players an AI-controlled partner and bullet sponge enemies.

However, all hope is not lost for Wolfenstein: why else would it be the third game on the list? The narrative has been pushed forward in time, as B.J.’s twin daughters are now in their adolescence, now giving players a glimpse at the 1980s of Wolfenstein‘s skewed universe. Additionally, the level design itself is more freeform thanks to development assistance from Arkane, the developers of the Dishonored series.

Will Wolfenstein: Youngblood successfully deliver more of the series’s goofy charm and crazy alternate reality? Almost certainly. On the other hand, will the game be as fun to play alone as in multiplayer? That remains to be seen. Last month’s E3 demo that raised such concerns was naturally only a snapshot of a game in development, so MachineGames and Arkane have had plenty of time to resolve these potential downsides to a co-op focused game.

Those are our three big single player games to look out for this month. Other interesting titles coming soon include Stranger Things 3 on July 4 and Attack on Titan 2 on July 5, both games hitting Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

On July 12 we will see the sequel to an almost-fantastic Minecraft-like RPG spinoff, Dragon Quest Builders 2 on Switch and PlayStation 4, as well as the Switch port of “anime Monster Hunter”, God Eater 3

The week after, July 19 brings us Switch-exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, and at an undetermined time during the month Klei Entertainment’s anticipated survival-sim Oxygen Not Included will finally leave early access on PC.

Have we missed anything that you’re looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below and be sure bookmark OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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