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Editorial

Watch Out, Telltale: The Council Rewrites the Narrative Adventure Playbook

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The Council

Since the launch of the first season of The Walking Dead in 2012, Telltale Games has been the undisputed champion of the narrative adventure genre. The studio’s shining star has enabled it to license such highly valued properties as Borderlands, Batman, and Game of Thrones, and myriad other development teams have co-opted the episodic release model and narrative structure to varying degrees of success. With The Council, Big Bad Wolf Studio becomes the most recent team to try its hand at the format and, thanks to some smart additions, may outdo Telltale in its area of specialisation.

Backed by the experienced teams at Cyanide and Focus Home Interactive, Big Bad Wolf has embarked on a noble mission with The Council. Scheduled to be released as five episodes, the project drops the speculative-fiction setting and trappings of many other episodic titles in favour of a narrative firmly grounded within a historical fiction mystery. With such a premise, the game may come across as Telltale by way of Assassin’s Creed and Agatha Christie, but, while it certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the past, any such direct comparison will fall short. Instead, this new IP feels, at once, recognisable and strange, blending relatable concerns with antiquated ideas. Beyond the apparent literary and ludic inspirations, The Council draws heavily from real-world history, featuring a bundle of eminent personages, peppering the setting with famed artwork, and relying on Ancient Greek mythology for the sole puzzle in the first episode. The inclusion of these aspects establishes the game within cultures and time periods that will be familiar to many Westerners. As such, slipping into the shoes of French gentleman Louis de Richet feels comfortable, though the development team is uninterested in engendering that same sense of contentment throughout the remainder of the production.

The Council does not attempt to replicate past successes, but to build upon and revolutionise them. At the heart of this goal is the infusion of RPG mechanics into Telltale’s formula. Before beginning the adventure, players are required to choose one of three professions for Louis, each of which immediately unlocks a suite of five talents and makes them cheaper to upgrade. These skills range from physical traits, such as agility, to more abstract and intellectual pursuits including science and etiquette. While several of these talents can go without being exercised for quite some time, The Council is carefully balanced to ensure none are superfluous, though the value of certain skills sometimes lacks clarity. To prevent players from relying too heavily on these abilities, Big Bad Wolf has included an Effort bar that drains with each use, though this meter can be replenished and affected in other ways by a range of consumables. This collection of mechanics most commonly emerges within conversations, which also represent an innovative departure from the norm.

Council2

The dialogue wheel may be standard fare, but Confrontations give The Council a unique edge. Confrontations occur in moments of high tension, such as when Louis is trying to gain information from one of the NPCs or convince them of his trustworthiness, and more closely resemble L.A. Noire’s interrogation segments than traditional in-game discussions. Often taking the form of battles of wits, these gameplay segments demand emotional intelligence, logic, and memorisation of facts previously established within the narrative. With only one chance of success in each encounter, The Council feels realistic and engaging in a way that most RPGs and many narrative adventures are unwilling to attempt. However, this tendency to keep players on their toes comes with the concession that necessary knowledge is not always forthcoming. Even the most attentive user may overlook or fail to locate a piece of information that may be vital later. Such occasions can be frustrating, but hindsight allows the player to realise that the fault lies with their lack of observation and not a shortcoming within the game. The Confrontations system is brilliant, but its reliance on the user’s perceptiveness can be an issue that is endemic to the entire project.

Between observations, talents, traits, levelling, and Confrontations, The Council can, at times, seem overwhelming in its complexity. True RPGs such as Skyrim and Divinity can take the time to introduce their mechanics slowly, ensuring players have a firm grasp of each before moving on to the next. Although Big Bad Wolf tries to do the same, the demand of constant narrative progression means that the tutorials for certain features, including the Traits, do not seem quite comprehensive enough. Additionally, as Louis only levels up at the end of each chapter and the game offers little indication of what awaits in the next, the process of selecting which skills to improve must be based on a particular version of the character. ‘Role playing’ is thus foregrounded, but the player is left at a loss, sometimes unable to use talents that will lead to better chances of success. As such, the leveling systems seem a little obtuse, though, admittedly, alternative solutions would likely be less elegant and break up the core gameplay and narrative.

To disturb the story would be a cardinal error. As mentioned earlier, the tale told by The Council is a grounded narrative mystery with stakes that, in this first episode, at least, seem much lower than those present in The Walking Dead, Life is Strange, King’s Quest, or Guardians of the Galaxy. However, the novel setting and human concerns give the title a unique selling point. Furthermore, although Louis’s quest to locate his missing mother powers the adventure, much larger mysteries emerge as the game progresses. From George Washington’s and Napoleon Bonaparte’s secrets to the cone of silence that surrounds Lord Mortimer (the owner of the island manor that Louis and his mother are invited to), new questions constantly arise. The depth of this narrative is combined with a choice-and-consequence system that makes players keenly aware that they may be missing out on key pieces of information by selecting a path to follow. As such, the user feels like the architect of Louis’s relationships and destiny, which is a quality that few other games—episodic narratives or otherwise—can claim to achieve.

Choice is frequently touted as a central feature of Telltale-esque, new-age point-and-click adventures, but few manage to give immediate weight to the consequences. The Council is different. The options remain binary, but siding with one character or staying in a particular location rather than leaving feels as though it alters the dynamic and has long-term effects. In concert with this trait, the game introduces a host of RPG mechanics that, while sometimes lacking clarity, give it a clear identity disparate from the norm. As such, Big Bad Wolf’s debut project does not seem to be a competitor to Telltale and its contemporaries; it is a successor.

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

The PlayStation 5 Specs Are Beefy, But Not Entirely Necessary

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PlayStation 5

Six years have passed since the launch of the PlayStation 4, and, consequently, the launch of the eighth generation of consoles. Throughout this time the industry has seen a shift in how the medium is consumed. Nowadays, gamers are no longer forced to experience titles through conventional controller inputs thanks to the implementation of VR, while visual performance and optimization are at record heights given the current technology available to developers.

For well over a year now, rumors and speculations have sprung up surrounding the next generation of hardware from both Sony and Microsoft, with the latter being more open about its technological aspirations. Despite withholding true hardware specifications, Microsoft does not shy away from igniting conversations around its next systems (yes plural). Sony, on the other hand, has been extremely tight lipped on the topic, only hinting at the PlayStation 5 during a discussion on the success of the PS4.

Until now, consumers were left to speculate on the possibilities of what the PlayStation 5 will contain. To the surprise of many, however, Sony has unexpectedly opened up about the final specifications that will be found within the upcoming hardware. Lead architect on Sony’s next console Mark Cerny detailed how important this generational leap is for the company and what consumers can expect from its beefy machine. While confirming some rumors, and debunking others, Cerny expressed Sony’s desire for the new generation to allow “for fundamental changes in what a game could be.” As a bold statement by Cerny, this ideology will help Sony fall in line with the trajectory that other studios, such as Xbox, have had during the eighth generation of consoles.

For those who are unaware, the PS4 launched in 2013 to wide success, re-establishing Sony’s brand at the forefront of console gaming. Although the console became a household and media juggernaut, many tech-savvy individuals were quick to point out the flaws within its hardware. For example, much of the specifications that the PS4 touted were, in fact, already outdated at release when compared to high-end PC rigs. Despite the obvious limitations of console gaming, the choice of hardware found within the PS4 proved puzzling, as it was being marketed as a giant leap forward for the industry. Sony would later attempt to mitigate the ongoing damage caused by underperforming hardware with the mid-generation iteration of the PS4 Pro, though this attempt only served to extend the console lifecycle by another few years.

From the outset, Sony knew its largest issue was underperforming hardware, and, thanks to the information detailed by Mark Cerny, the community finally has some insight on how that will be addressed. For starters, the CPU found within the PS5’s hardware will use the third generation of AMD’s Ryzen line which is a massive leap over the PS4’s Jaguar chip. Although I am not much for technical jargon within the PC economy, I do understand how much the Jaguar chip held back performance within the eighth generation, and I welcome the Ryzen with open arms. My only hope is that this upgrade will be enough to sustain the PlayStation 5 throughout the years and maintain its presence as a PC competitor.

Additionally, the custom AMD Navi GPU that will be present in the PS5 will support ray-tracing, a feature that only a few games fully utilize on PC, but nonetheless will provide a more realistic experience. Although this specific feature is a welcome addition to the console ecosystem, I honestly never expected it to be a priority. While having real-time accurate reflections within the environment will definitely increase immersion, I would personally desire a more optimized experience that will never falter during play. We will have to wait until more is revealed on the PS5’s ray-tracing technology, but I can only hope that it will not take priority over performance.

Building upon the implementation of ray-tracing with the PS5, Cerny noted that, for him, the audio technology present within the PS4 did not achieve the standards of a generational leap from the PS3. According to Cerny, the PS5 will implement 3D Audio, dramatically changing how gamers perceive sound within a video game. The inclusion of 3D Audio sounds like a well-deserved feature for PlayStation veterans. However, I feel as though this addition will only benefit those who have an entertainment setup that supports it. Unfortunately, individuals who resort to stereo speakers could potentially see no difference in how the audio is delivered from PS5 titles compared to those on PS4.

The interview also provided information surrounding the type of storage available in the PS5. As a much-needed addition, the PlayStation 5 will contain a solid state drive (SSD), which will allow for faster load times and experiences. As many PlayStation users know, the PS4 can provide some appalling load times, leading this issue to be a constant topic of discussion throughout the entire generation. The possibility of a game having long load times was so great that it often made headlines in video game’s media, pleading for action to be taken (Bloodborne anyone?).

Thankfully, information on the PS5’s hard drive capabilities does not require too much speculation, as Cerny provided an example of how fast it will be. According to him, Marvel’s Spider-Man, which has an average of a 15 second load time on a PS4 Pro, will have just 0.8 second load times on a PS5. No indication is yet forthcoming as to how consistent this technological feat will be across different titles, and I urge consumers to temper their expectations on the speed of the PS5 because only time will tell how efficient it can be. Regardless of my concerns surrounding inconsistencies, the PS5 will feature the fastest load times of any console before it, eliminating one of the greatest issues of the PS4’s hardware.

Bloodborne gameplay 1

In addition to the announcement that PlayStation 5 will have an SSD, Cerny confirmed a much-desired feature in backwards compatibility. Although this feature will not reach as far back as the competition, the PS5 will be compatible with PS4 titles, both digital and physical. This was to be expected—seeing as both consoles will run off the same architecture—but the silence from Sony proved worrisome for some fans, myself included. While I am disappointed that PS3 titles will not be compatible with the PS5, I understand that the cell processor of that earlier device would take more effort than it is worth to make games from the platform compatible. Regardless, PlayStation fans can rejoice in this news, as it further validates any investment into the PS4’s ecosystem.

Where I draw most of my criticism from Mark Cerny’s report on the specifications of the PS5 is within the idea that Sony’s next hardware will support 8K resolution. To be clear, I am not stating that such an achievement is impossible; rather I question the necessity of it. Given everything that we know about the PS5, one can assume that the system will cost around USD $500. With 4K televisions slowly becoming a household norm, is it worthwhile for a company to be devoting resources into a feature that will likely not be consumer friendly for years to come? I understand that Sony is at a disadvantage right now with the Xbox One X outputting at native 4K, but seeking to outdo the competition to this extent seems financially unobtainable for most consumers.

My concerns develop from individuals who hear the news of PS5 and 8K resolution and assume it to be the Second Coming. It is unfeasible to have a $500 to $600 console run at a native 8K resolution. Anyone who believes this will happen need look no further than PlayStation’s competition with the Xbox One X. At its launch, Microsoft was selling the Xbox One X at a loss, solely to prevent the console from exceeding the $500 mark and turning away consumers. Microsoft’s current machine is capable of outputting at a native 4K resolution, whereas the PS4 Pro can only achieve the same through upscaled checkerboarding. The PS5 will surely be able to output at a native 4K resolution, but to expect anything more with the current state of consumer technology is wishful thinking. I urge consumers to understand that if the PS5 has an 8K setting, it will likely be only achieved in the future and through a checkerboarded solution.

Spider-Man PS4

Given the rumors that the next generation of hardware will be the last, Sony may be trying to future proof the PS5 so that it can remain on the market for as long as possible. Given the information provided by Mark Cerny, Sony may be intending to utilize every feature of the PS5 to its entirety before considering what could come after. By future proofing the PlayStation 5, Sony can anticipate where the industry is heading, ultimately eliminating the need for a mid-generation upgrade with a PS5 Pro.

I have been a PlayStation fan for as long as I can remember, but have recently branched out with the Xbox One X and PC gaming to experience what those ecosystems have to offer. By broadening my horizons, I maintain an outside perspective on how Sony is upholding its promise to gamers and how the competition tackles similar issues created by an ever-growing industry. With the eighth generation nearing its completion, I look forward to discussions such as this one as it generates hope and excitement for the future of the brand.

While the PlayStation 4’s colossal success this generation will provide a jump-start in sales for the company’s new hardware, the beginning of a new generation only reinvigorates the console wars. As a firm believer in what both Sony and Microsoft will do to shape the future of the industry, I am reminded that competition breeds excellence. Furthermore, when competition is present between both parties to win over public appeal, in the end, consumers emerge victorious.

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