About a week ago Nintendo announced their new console, coming out in 2017. The “Switch” seems to have awoken many a fan, and of course, many a detractor. I’m personally quite happy to ride the hype wave, certain that this will revolutionize the gaming industry in a lasting way. Nintendo has done it before, and for that reason, I think it’s the perfect time to reflect on its former successes.
The N64 was arguably the company’s greatest console, and with its host of groundbreaking single-player games, such as Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, it’s not a difficult argument to win. Yet it’s also the “party” games like Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart that are the reason many a millennial has still not given up their banana-shaped controllers.
GoldenEye 007 is a game that comfortably bridges these two categories. Its multiplayer gave us split-screen combat with varying types of matches (“The Living Daylights” aka flag-tag ftw), and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still get immense enjoyment out of challenging my friends to a proximity mine battle in the stacks. However, its single-player mode was no slouch either, and perhaps one of the first times that consoles were taken seriously for their potential to produce quality first-person shooters.
Looking at the game in 2016, it’s aged…alright. Really, it’s still an all-around enjoyable game. But after completing a recent play-through, I realized that some of these missions are just real clunkers. Therefore, I give you the 100% Definitive™ list of levels, from best to worst.
The level that should need no introduction. This is hands-down the game at its best. You’re playing through a mission that Bond actually went on during the movie, you get to sneak around with a silenced PP7 and feel like an actual spy for a fair amount of it, there’s moments where you have no choice but to clean the room (and feel very talented for having done so), and the music is the coolest the soundtrack has to offer. Plus you get to see a 64-bit Sean Bean!
The worst that can be said about it is that for those completionists hoping to unlock the invincibility cheat, you’re going to be spending a considerable amount of time here. Even perfect runs can get screwed over by Dr. Doak’s RNG-reliant placement.
Best moment: the satisfying click-clack when you use the door decoder
Best cheat to use: 2x throwing knife. Really makes your bathroom surprise extra fun.
2. Control Room
I’m starting to wonder if maybe the soundtrack sways me unduly, because this is certainly the second best in that regard as well.
However, for a level where it’s rather difficult to sneak and where there’s a few unfortunately placed drone-guns, this one still has that ineffable 00-agent “feel” to it.
The objectives seem more varied, and by this point the guards pose an actual threat to you. Additionally, the map is straight-forward, but offers enough side rooms for you to feel like there’s plenty of choice. The maze that is the stairs leading from the first to second floor, and second to third floor can be irksome, but once you get Natalia through that first door, it’s fine. And unlike most levels involving her, she actually enhances the experience.
Best moment: protecting Natalia from the guards pouring into the room. The tension is THERE.
Best cheat to use: slow animation. Especially with aforementioned best moment
There’s really nothing particularly revolutionary here. This is a fast paced level where you are just unloading bullets nonstop. It’s difficult on any setting above agent, and about as heart-pumping as you’re going to get with block graphics. What puts it high on this list for me is the ending of the level, where you get to play out an actual scene from the movie, more or less verbatim. Plus that watch laser is just fun.
Best moment: when you get shot in the back by the guard that emerges from a bathroom behind you. This is the kind of attention to detail I crave.
Best cheat to use: double RC-P90+infinite ammo. You’re welcome
Man, I must have hit my head and forgotten about that part of Goldeneye where Bond chases Ourumov through a weapons silo in in Kirghizstan. Though to be fair, the fake backstory they invented for this level is actually plausible.
This is another fast-paced shoot ‘em up, but what makes it extra fun is the self-imposed timer on the level once you drop the first plastique. It’s not quite as good as the train, mostly because every damn floor is utterly identical to the one before it, but just work your way through one, and you’ll see why it’s a formula worth repeating. Oh, and the scientists rarely get in the way.
Best moment: routing around the floor for that damned circuit board you missed
Best cheat to use: fast animation. Also chug a latte just before starting it up.
Can you tell that I have a penchant for canon-compliancy? The archives mission follows Bond’s arrest for his theft of the Tiger helicopter, which is more or less what happens on-screen (minus Natalia’s “boys with toys” remark). You escape an interrogation room, rescue Natalia, and even meet up with Dimitri Mishkin, before jumping out a window. In this case, it really is the objectives that push this level over the edge, rather than the cringe-worthy slew of “use this item on this random thing” that come up later.
However, Natalia inevitably getting scared and hiding in the attic is a nightmare, especially if you’re pursuing the invisibility cheat.
Best moment: working your way into the hall just after you shoot your guards. On 00-agent this can take time.
Best cheat to use: paintball mode. It looks the prettiest here, since it’s a well-lit level with stylish green walls.
Fans of the movie remember that time that Bond boarded a ship, fought some rando with a towel, and threw him down a flight of steps. Fans of the video game remember that time Bond boarded a ship, freed a slew of hostages, and successfully planted a tracker on the Tiger helicopter. I think you can see why the later is preferable for a play-through.
There’s really not a whole lot wrong with this level; releasing the hostages is a legitimate challenge, and dare I see even a fun one. However, the map is a bit on the confusing side of things.
Best moment: when you finally find the helicopter despite having heard it growing louder for the past ten minutes.
Best cheat: 2x grenade launcher. Nothing improves your aim like someone’s life on the line.
Man, that opening title sequence to Goldeneye was pretty great, wasn’t it? This game at least milks all they can out of it.
“The Runway” is sort of cute in how hard it tries. There’s a tank sitting there! And you need to take out turrets of randomness on higher levels! But in reality, this is a level that you can zip through in under half a minute. It’s hard to call it fun, so much as to call it “there.” But there’s also nothing to say against it?
Best moment: when you realize that the DK-mode cheat time limit is 5 minutes.
Best cheat: what are you doing? Just get to the damn plane!
This is actually a level that is more fun than not, in fairness, though if you’re playing above agent, ammo becomes a problem. Here, you get to pursue Alec Trevelyan as he yells out quips from the movie that were put into a blender. There’s a drone at one point, an endless stream of ZMG-toting guards, and Alec definitely has a weapons advantage here.
The biggest issue, however, is the seeming randomness with Alec’s chase, including when he inexplicably decides to run to the end-stage of the level. It feels very repetitive, and very out of your control.
Best moment: when you miss the damn platform dropping down the latter.
Best cheat to use: Magnum. Gives you that “pistols at dawn” kind of feeling.
9. Bunker 2
It’s always a risk to return to the same level for a game, but the second time you hit the Severnaya Bunker, it’s well worth it. Sure, plot-wise Bond being there makes no sense, but it’s a crazy amount of fun to break out of your cell with the magnetic watch (Live and Let Die shout-out!), and then sneak around collecting incredibly weird shit, including a VHS copy of the Goldeneye movie.
The best part is that you get to leave Natalia in the cell for most of this, though I’m pretty sure she can’t die anyway.
Best moment: finding double silenced-PP7s in the safe
Best cheat to use: 2x laser. It’s super nice down these long corridors.
I’m a little surprised this level is landing right in the middle of the list, because in many ways, the Depot is quite flawed. The map is dark and not at all intuitive, and the objectives pretty much just amount to “press the B button at this thing”.
However, its unstructured nature actually feels like a challenge, in a good way. It’s not the kind of level you’d break a guide out for, but it’s one where you do feel like you’re solving something. Plus there’s one part where you just blow shit up. No, it’s not part of the movie, but it also doesn’t try to be. It actually might be the level that feels the most closely related to what came in Perfect Dark.
Best moment: when you first realize that half the guards are carrying grenades.
Best cheat to use: Silver PPK. A good shot really, really helps here.
Okay, I really have no idea why this game just decided to stick two missions from Roger Moore movies at the end.
Either way, this is the better one. Your enemies are wearing yellow jumpsuits so they’re easily spotted, and there’s moonraker lasers. Plus your mission revolves around making sure a shuttle takes off, and you get to kill Jaws.
The map is confusing, and there’s lots of ducking through vents, but…lasers. Just don’t think and have fun with it, like anything Roger Moore-esque.
Best moment: when you have a minute to run around and do nothing as the ship is taking off.
Best cheat to use: All weapons. Start toggling through all of them, because this is not a level worth taking seriously. Klobb it up.
12. Bunker 1
I wouldn’t call this a bad level by any means, and there’s even a cameo by Boris Grishenko (he pulls a gun on you!).
There’s also plenty of sneaky-sneaking, including an objective to destroy all the security cameras.
The biggest issue, however, is that it pales to its successor, especially with its much smaller map. It’s certainly fun, but the replay isn’t quite as engaging (though this is actually another level you can beat in about thirty seconds on Agent).
Best moment: when you try and throw the Goldeneye key back onto the table and it always misses.
Best cheat to use: hunting knives. They’re oddly satisfying here.
The Dam is a damn good opening level to the game (see what I did there). There’s few surprises, and only one objective (jump) for the Agent difficulty. At the same time, it introduces you to your silenced PP7, a KV7 Soviet, and a sniper rifle, while teaching about B-activation mechanics, shooting locks, and alarm systems in a pretty seamless way.
What’s less seamless is the mystifying mission for Secret Agent and 00-Agent, where you go beneath the buildings to do something with some computer mainframe. It really just forces you to stay onto a glorified training course, and the longer you’re there, the more apparent it becomes.
Best moment: when you accidentally get stuck behind that damn truck and have to wait forever for the door to open.
Best cheat: slow animation. It’s not that you’ll need it, but it just feels so satisfying to zip through, and mercifully the doors aren’t subjected to the slowing.
I don’t know what this level is. I don’t know what this level is even trying to be. All I know is that it’s basically a straight-forward path, and the only thing keeping it interesting are the enemy weapons you pick up. You won’t be upset playing through this, but…just. Why?
Best moment: I guess when you call in Jack Wade, but that’s also the only moment that’s possible to remember here.
Best cheat to use: Bond invisible. It’s actually downright fun in this case, and one of the levels where invisibility doesn’t compromise a mission, like in the facility when Alec can’t see you.
15. Statue Park
I do have to appreciate how wonderfully this evoked the movie, but boy is it not fun to play through. The map is dark and incredibly confusing, and the enemies seem to spawn from nowhere (and blend perfectly with their surroundings). You’ll spend more time than not passing the same damn giant hammer, feeling like Frodo and Sam in Emyn Muil. You are going in circles, yes.
Best moment: Sean Bean, back from the dead.
Best cheat to use: tiny Bond. It makes the statues seem really scary, plus you wanna look your best for Alec, don’t you?
And here we are at the second Roger Moore level, this one inspired by both The Man with the Golden Gun, since you have to pick up a golden gun. And also Live and Let Die again? For some reason, your objective is to kill Baron Samedi, who still can’t be killed, and still is not over you disrupting that whole opium ring, I guess. So what’s there to do but chase him around an incredibly dark map after locating the golden gun in a puzzle room of no-logic?
The memes make it not a total loss, but the actual gameplay leaves a lot to be desired.
Best moment: every time Baron Samedi laughs. They really nailed his characterization.
Best cheat to use: Gold PP7. You have to win this pissing contest.
I might get skewered for this, but there’s also a reason I blacklisted “Strand of the Ancients” in WoW: I don’t really like vehicle quests. The Hoth battle in the N64 Shadows of the Empire might be a small exception, but they actually put effort into those mechanics. With this tank? Not so much.
The map is awful, but I’m pretty sure if you guess mostly right-turns, you get there fast. However, you also get to deal rockets being fired at your head, and mines to ride over. The car you’re chasing isn’t even in-sight at any point! The worst is the extended objectives for harder difficulties, where you actually have to explore these damn buildings to find Valentine. It’s like a maze, but one you’ll likely die in the middle of 6 or 7 times before remembering it. Give me the Zora trials on the moon any day.
Best moment: when you see the end gates and your eyes fill with tears of joy.
Best cheat to us: turbo mode. Don’t bother with the tank and just end this nightmare as soon as you can.
18. Surface 1
Look. The surface levels suck. It’s just snow, nothing but snow. However, this is the surface level where you can actually see something, and where your objective is mostly “go towards that giant dish.” You’ll do it, but you won’t be happy about it.
Best moment: when you realize the Klobb is the only gun you have any ammo for.
Best cheat: invincibility. You’re going to be accidentally missing guards anyway, and this is not a level worth repeating. Slap it on and call it a day.
As much as I’m happy that Xenia’s “good squeeze” wasn’t adapted to the video game, this was not the way to go about it. You’re once again shoved into a dark level, but this time all your enemies are in camo, and there’s random drone guns everywhere. The only positive is that Xenia is carrying a decent weapon you get to use, but it’s just a slog-fest where you’re almost guaranteed to die the first few times around. Don’t get me started on 00-Agent.
Best moment: Xenia has very cool music.
Best cheat: DK mode. It actually helps a ton here.
20. Surface 2
I have nothing good to say about this level. NOTHING. It’s “Surface 1”, but with objectives that take you to buildings that are more inconveniently located, and with a dark RED sky so you can’t see fucking anything. But you’ll get shot still, don’t worry.
Best moment: when you accidentally trigger alarms and send everyone crashing towards you.
Best cheat: enemy rockets. Just go full-on with the misery.
It should be noted, however, that no matter how bad this list is towards the bottom, it beats every level from The World is Not Enough N64. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some flag-tag to play with lasers in the complex.
Images courtesy of Nintendo
The State of the (Gaming) Union
The PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X represent the half-life of the 8th generation consoles. Given that, an apt question is, where are we?
It’s hard to explain.
The 8th generation has brought us remastered game after remastered game. And we love what’s been served up; the Bioshocks, the Uncharteds, the Crash Bandicoots, the Gears of War. It’s exciting, to play the games that shaped our childhoods on these newer consoles. And then we pull those out and put in, what? Another Call of Duty (CoD). I remember the trailers for CoD 3, way back on the PlayStation 3 in 2006. And now this November we’re getting another World War Two-set Call of Duty.
Dice gave us something only marginally fresher with the release of Battlefield 1. But with the exception of mustard gas and trench warfare, not much else is different. There are still all the modern scopes you could dream of, and you’re spoiled for choice if your taste is for something automatic (though period accurate). It’s New, but we’ve Seen It Before. But now with 64 players per server on Conquest. Which is still a raucously intense good time. Sometimes more is better.
The Metal Gear Solid saga ended with the release of The Phantom Pain, and while it was an interesting game from a technical and gameplay standpoint, it didn’t feel much like a Metal Gear. There were flashes of it—most of the missions in Africa, the battles with Sahelanthropus, and some of the story with the child soldiers. But beyond that? It felt tame, as far as Metal Gear games were concerned. In its defense, however, that was less the fault of director Hideo Kojima and the suffocating effect of Konami, Kojima’s publisher’s influence.
Mass Effect Andromeda was a beautiful shooter, but a crappy Mass Effect game. In Andromeda, decisions were mostly arbitrary, the story was lukewarm at best, and the romances were all over the place in quality, mostly lackluster or even bad. In a series that had always been short on the men-loving-men (mlm) options to date, Andromeda was even more barren at launch than the previous entries. Bioware’s talked about fixing these issues, too, but so far hasn’t really done anything to remedy the situation.
And while Bioware does bear some of the blame for the mess that was Andromeda, it isn’t all their fault. Electronic Arts is the publisher that oversaw Bioware’s production of the game. It set the new Bioware IP up to fail almost from day one, with constantly accelerating deadlines, no unified vision, and an almost entirely rookie team spread across three physically separate studio locations hundreds of miles apart. And even if those disparate pieces finally found a way to work coherently together, they were undermined by the accelerating deadlines.
So where are we? The titanic force of Activision, 2k Games, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and such believe we want more multiplayer-only cooperative games or the same rehashed franchise, but with a different location. This is what their focus groups tell them. The evidence of this exists not just in the modern slew of games on the shelf but in the developmental difference in a game called Fuse.
When it was first introduced, it had a unique art style, it was almost wacky, it was quick and light and interesting and fun and cool. And then the developer, Insomniac Games, turned to Electronic Arts for help with getting the thing published. The result was the game was neutered, broken, and beaten into a stale-gray GrimDark knock off of the same old Call of Duty veneer that’s gotten increasingly more worn-out with every new release.
This is the difference between catering to an audience, and catering to a focus group. The latter is boring as hell. And year after year, we the audience clamor for something different.
In the midst of this dysphoria between audience and publisher, there are developers that heard the cry, and delivered a remedy.
Guerilla Games did something new with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective game that takes place from the point of view of Aloy, a woman and an outsider, as she struggles to find a place amongst her tribe and the larger world beyond. It’s not necessarily post-apocalyptic, it’s post-technological. It’s beautiful, interesting, thought provoking, fun, and combines so many rare little touches that it feels utterly unique. It reflected an audience that’s largely ignored by the Triple-A publishers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the talking heads who tout the invulnerability of those publishers predicted its failure.
Which must be terribly embarrassing for them, considering how well the game has done, critically and commercially.
Telltale Games continues to release narratively immersive and entertaining new entries into the episodic game market. Some big studios noticed the popularity of the newer format and tried to compete there. Square Enix, a publisher on the same scale of Activision and Ubisoft, released their new Hitman game in two-mission chunks. Except there was a huge difference. While there’s an over-arching story throughout the episodes of a Telltale game, each “episode” features a coherent beginning, middle, and end that’s unique to that story, and influenced by the chapters that preceded it.
Instead of understanding this and building the new Hitman game to fit the episodic format, Square Enix just amputated a complete game and released it in small chunks and called it good.
The result? In spite of some of the most finely finessed gameplay and most beautiful graphics of the series, the game was tonally inconsistent, the pacing was unpredictable, and the little chunks of story you got in the small cutscenes didn’t actually set up a narrative to experience so much as just introduce the next sandbox for Agent 47 to kill his way through. Thus? An episodic game that’s quite clearly not designed to be experienced in the little pieces you got, but compiled as a whole. Personally, the game became more fun to replay linearly when there were more episodes to go through at a time. Because it comes together that way, like it was designed to.
Anyway. I digress.
Games made by Telltale or Guerilla or Arkane are not the norm. The game industry is in a feedback loop of only ever putting time and effort into developing Triple-A games that satisfy a focus group. And that focus group just keeps calling for a new and improved CoD, because Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the freshest thing – in 2007.
If that sounds callous forgive me. Except look at the number of first person shooters with a military flavor that it spawned.
It’s a lot. And the problem with emulation and not innovation is not that we don’t like first-person-shooters with guns we can recognize and political situations that aren’t entirely dissimilar to the world we live in. We do; even with consistently shrinking sales year after year, CoD remains a best-selling series.
The problem arises when the mimicry these successes spawn fail to emulate the things that made the original interesting. I’ll explain more about that in a moment.
The audience, those of us out here wanting to buy games, are calling for something else. Jim Sterling expressed a similar sentiment in a remastered episode of the Jimquisition, citing variety as the actual spice of life.
We, as an audience, don’t want one game with only slight variations between them. We want different experiences. XCOM 2 is a turn based strategy game that is so successful it’s threatened to become its own franchise by itself. Which would be awesome, because it’s a fantastic game. But it’s something of a unicorn in the ever-expanding Call of Duty emulator market. XCOM 2’s turn-based strategy is quite a Far Cry (pun intended) from the traditional game being published. Unrelated to this, Far Cry 5 looks beautiful and for once in my life I can say I’m absolutely excited by a game being made by Ubisoft.
Moving on. Let’s look at another piece of the 8th generation that’s gaming speed on both console and PC markets.
Virtual Reality is a trend hot enough right now that the PC market is adapting and evolving its hardware to compete with the consoles directly. Alienware and Dell had booths that focused on their new VR-ready hardware at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). That would be exciting, too! Except, there doesn’t appear to be anything really unique about VR. At that same E3, Bethesda showcased its own VR experience, where Fallout 4 and Skyrim were now VR compatible. Which would be cool, if it didn’t look incredibly cumbersome to play, and not particularly evolutionary.
VR doesn’t feel like a unique platform to play games on. It feels like a gimmick. And an expensive one at that, with the barrier to entry for most VR devices costing far more than a standard console. Oculous Rift costs $600, and the HTC Vive costs $800, and that’s before you have a PC to plug them into. Given how expensive that is, what does it offer in terms of gameplay? Not much. Roller coaster simulators and arcade shooting galleries.
Despite its cost, however, I have a point of contention. I don’t think the rules of this storytelling medium have been figured out yet. To explain, I need to flash-back to the earliest days of gaming.
In 1972 when the original Pong released with the first Atari home console, I imagine there was a similar sentiment. Video games are a gimmick. Nothing more. I mean look at it! It’s just moving two paddles and bouncing a ball between them. And yet, Ashley Johnson, voice/motion capture actress for the character Ellie in The Last of Us won TWO BAFTA awards for her role in the game and it’s DLC. She earned two of the most coveted awards in acting for her role in a video game.
This is the level gaming has evolved to. More than forty years separates the release of Pong, and the release of The Last of Us. Gaming has evolved by quantum leaps in that time. And the leaps have almost always involved narratively pushing the hardware you’re telling a story on. Hideo Kojima did this every time he released a game. He did it first with the 1987 release of Metal Gear on the MSX2. And later on in 1999 with the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation One.
We have yet to see that innovation in VR gaming. That’s not to say we won’t; actual VR gaming is relatively young and we have yet to meet the inventors that are going to take VR and make it something worth paying attention to. But for the moment, it remains unimpressive.
What about the rest, though? There’s a surge in popularity for open-world games on the scale of The Witcher 3. First things first, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Narratively, it’s fascinating. Visually, the spectacle is almost incomprehensible and when encountering monsters, often terrifying. The sound design is equally brilliant and the music is haunting and evocative. It is worthy of the almost obscene number awards heaped upon it. It’s not without faults, however; a game that features such a diversely imagined bestiary can’t seem to invent a fantasy world with people of color in any role.
But the success of the game has led to emulation. It’s almost inevitable. We’re still inundated with Call of Duty 4 impersonators, and that came out ten years ago at this point.
The problem is; when a game succeeds, those trying to mimic the game to replicate its success often mimic the wrong parts.
The Witcher 3 would have been a poorer game if it had been made by Ubisoft on the production deadline of an Assassin’s Creed game. Which is to say, an open world game is not just about the size of the sandbox, it’s what you do in that sandbox. And climbing towers to unlock vantage points doesn’t keep me wanting to play for 100+ hours. Sooner or later, you’re gonna run out of towers.
Fallout 4, dodgy story, bugs, and all, fills its world with interesting things to do and encounter as you explore. Which is the point of an open world game. It’s about inhabiting the world. Any world. Even quasi-linear games like Dishonored 2 and Prey, both created by Arkane Studios, are brilliantly rich and dive deep into the mythos of their chosen worlds. Because immersion isn’t necessarily connected to how detailed or photorealistic your graphics are. Journey and Azul are two other games that are fascinating and invoke great emotion when played. And they can’t technically hold a candle to the graphical fidelity of Batman: Arkham Knight (post patches.)
Which leads me to the point. Eventually, the purpose of games isn’t to maximize the number of polygons in a character model. We will eventually hit a technical wall where we can’t make something any more realistic. And that’s okay. The entire Borderlands franchise remains graphically interesting despite its age because it is stylized. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, showed its age within a year.
Firewatch would have been a poorer game if it had tried for outright realism instead of building around its own stylization. Because even stylized, it is beautiful to look at. The sunsets gave me moments of pause to simply stare at the visual of it.
The whole point of this is to demonstrate one thing: gaming is not a one-size-fits-all market. And what was interesting once, ten years ago, may not be what’s interesting now.
Games like The Witcher 3, Journey, Azul, Dishonored 2, Prey, XCOM 2, Fallout 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and even Overwatch, demonstrates that the one-size-fits-all philosophy of the biggest publishers is outdated at best and outright ignorant at worst.
And while I haven’t mentioned all the best high-points in the 8th generation, this goes to illustrate a singular point: we, as gamers, want more. And the companies that provide it—Arkane, Naughty Dog, Guerilla Games, Ninja Studios, CD Projekt Red, among others—are going to be more successful than the Ubisofts and Activisions and the Electronic Arts that rehash the same games with improved graphics and expect us to be impressed.
Because we’re not. And the diminishing returns of each consecutive CoD reflect that.
Image Courtesy of
Solas, Bull, and the King’s Gambit (a Little Game of Mind-Chess)
One of the most brilliant conversations in gaming occurs between Solas and Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition, yet, depending on their choices, it’s a scene many gamers may have missed.
Spoiler Warning for all of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
“I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a pawn? Are you even trying anymore?”
“Think about it, my friend.”
With a new Dragon Age title reportedly on the horizon, now is a perfect time to revisit great moments in the previous trilogy. In Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI), The Iron Bull’s all-important loyalty quest, “The Demands of the Qun,” sets up a huge number of game-changing possibilities for the Qunari character, who is a complex mix of subtlety, humor, and divided loyalties. If you save Krem and the Chargers, the family of lovable rogues and misfits Bull had assembled (one rescue at a time) over the past decade, you save Bull as well. Even though he goes through a tough period of adjustment and fear at going rogue, or “Tal-Vashoth,” Bull will then continue to evolve and enrich both his character and relationships as the game story continues.
However, if you don’t save his family, or if you skip Bull’s loyalty quest altogether? Bull’s character development is markedly different, darker, and more tragic. And you also miss one of the best and most beautifully conceived dialogue sequences in all of gaming.
While he’s happy to have saved his loved ones, Bull is now haunted—unmoored and uncertain, filled with guilt for turning his back upon the Qun, as well as with the fear and anxiety that he’ll lose control and give in to his own savagery and rage (something that actually happens sometimes to Qunari who escape the shackles of life under the Qun).
However, when Bull turns away from the Qun, one of the first companions to react with comfort (after a sympathetic Inquisitor) is, somewhat surprisingly, Solas, who shows real warmth, caring, and support in the aftermath. Previously critical and disapproving of Bull’s loyalty to the repressive Qunari regime, Solas appears genuinely moved and impressed when Bull leaves for the sake of the Chargers. It’s not exactly surprising that the secretive ancient trickster god of elven rebellion should heartily approve of Bull’s actions, but it is a warm and believable character note. And, it’s another example of the way the game’s banters show us actual relationship progression between our companions depending on our choices, and it leads to a terrific scene.
In the aftermath of his choice, Bull himself is now nervous, defensive and on edge, terrified of what he’s done and of what he may become. There’s also an element of guilt here for Bull—how many Tal-Vashoth did Bull himself hunt, kill, or capture in years past on behalf of the Qun? Were all of them savage, as he had believed? Or were any of them like him—sane and fully cognizant, and simply unwilling to sacrifice all they loved in order to live under a repressive yoke any longer?
“You are No Beast”
While Bull is wrestling with this issue, Solas speaks up. In their first moment of real warmth together, the following conversation takes place:
Solas: You are not Tal-Vashoth, Iron Bull, not really.
Iron Bull: Well that’s a fuckin’ relief.
Solas: You are no beast, snapping under the stress of the Qun’s harsh discipline. You are a man who made a choice… possibly the first of your life.
Iron Bull: I’ve always liked fighting. What if I turn savage, like the other Tal-Vashoth?
Solas (firmly): You have the Inquisition, you have the Inquisitor… and you have me.
Iron Bull (quietly): Thanks, Solas.
I love this conversation for so many reasons. It’s an important moment for both characters: Bull, no longer operating under his previous, smooth-talking secrecy, is now actively admitting doubt and fear. Meanwhile, Solas is no longer detached and cold. He not only offers support and friendship, he is telling Bull directly, “If you need me, I’m here.”
It’s a pretty huge moment for the quiet elven mage, whose previous impulses were typically to stay silent versus to speak, to observe but not to act, and to disengage, not to engage. Significantly, it’s also one more moment that shows us Solas’s journey on his way to falling in love with the modern world in which he’s found himself…even the muted, corrupted version that now exists under the presence of the Breach and the Veil.
It’s interesting to observe Solas’s situation in counterpoint to Bull’s; Bull may have just passed his own crisis of faith, but Solas is just beginning.
The King’s Gambit
Not long after this moment of encouragement, in a genuinely compassionate gesture, Solas tries to distract Bull from his pain and anxiety by suggesting (with a slight glint of mischief) a nice game of chess. And not just any chess… MIND-CHESS. As in, no board. Just the two of them, playing mental chess as they walk and fight their way through the countryside.
Of course… as you do.
What’s fun here (and impressive) is that Bull makes noises about the inconvenience of playing the game that way, but he’s actually more than willing, and pretty soon the two men are off on their game. And when they do, I geek out the entire time. First off, because, MIND-CHESS (and why, yes, I do have to keep referring to it in all-caps), and secondly, because it’s another great way to show how brilliant Bull actually is under all the deflective tough-guy bluster, acquitting himself impressively even in a MIND-CHESS game against the freaking elven god of mischief himself.
Basically, everything about this situation is fantastically cool. The only way it could have possibly been cooler is if a glitter-covered unicorn riding a dragon had landed in the middle of a nearby field and sung an impromptu rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Maybe with Corypants doing a little soft-shoe nearby. (Too much?)
But we don’t really need anything else. Not even visuals. The fact remains that just listening to these two men play chess in their minds is a terrific high point in the game, and the scene would be equally so in any film or novel.
Meanwhile, even though I’m a pretty mediocre and erratic chess player myself, I love the game, and found the entire sequence absorbing and beautifully written. Kudos to Patrick Weekes, David Gaider, and the DAI writing team because—as usual with Dragon Age: Inquisition—the scene is successful on many levels at once.
The Immortal Game
First off, a little history. The game played by Bull and Solas here is actually a reenactment of one of the most famous chess matches ever played, referred to as “The Immortal Game” or “King’s Gambit.” The original game took place informally between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky on June 21, 1851 in London (on a break during the first international tournament). It quickly achieved fame for its daring, creativity, and for the showstopping drama and brilliance of its final moves. It is considered to be the epitome of the dashing, “romantic” chess of the time.
The game created an electrifying sense of drama and suspense, and was so impressive at the time that when the game was over, and he had lost the match to Anderssen, Kieseritzky himself actually telegraphed a recap of the entire game to his Parisian chess club, just to share the experience. From there, it quickly became a sensation in chess history, with the French chess magazine La Régence publishing the entire game in July 1851. As its fame grew, it was eventually nicknamed “The Immortal Game” by the Austrian Ernst Falkbeer in 1855, and the name stuck.
Chess as Personality
What’s fantastic about this particular game serving as the match between Solas and The Iron Bull is that it’s a gorgeous encapsulation of both men and their personalities. Solas developes his pieces early and makes moves that are dramatic and aggressive while Bull responds more circuitously, warily hunting for weak spots. While some might assume that Bull would be the aggressor and Solas the cautious one, for me it’s actually very true to form that Bull, as a lifelong spy, would be more subtle and careful in his approach, protecting his pieces as he lays his traps. Solas, on the other hand, is bold, almost reckless, sacrificing his Rooks, a Bishop, and (tellingly) his Queen, while laying the final trap for checkmate with his Bishop (“Mage”), and two Knights.
It’s a superb and beautifully layered scene that recreates one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of chess… and yet manages to use that existing chess match to tell us everything we need to know about these two characters. There’s even a sly elegance to the dialogue that communicates just a hint of its 19th century origins, with Solas for instance naming the King’s Gambit and Bull accepting in gentlemanly fashion. Adding an additional layer to the action is the fact that the two are literally translating the game into and out of their own cultures for one another, with Solas fascinated by Bull’s Qunari names for his pieces, even as Solas himself also does a bit of this, in calling his Bishops “Mages.”
It’s All in the Voices
The writing may be beautiful, but it’s the voices that must truly convey all of these constantly shifting and subtle emotions (remember, it’s a series of banters, so it’s set forth as a series of aural, eavesdropped conversations). With some serious heavy lifting before them in this scenario, voice actors Freddie Prinze, Jr. (The Iron Bull) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Solas) do an especially wonderful job here. Just as they do in embodying these characters in their struggles and losses throughout the constantly shifting stakes and scenarios of the entire DAI game story. I especially love the way their voices contrast during the swift back-and-forth dialogue of the game itself; Freddie’s against Gareth’s, with Bull’s rich, deep voice against Solas’s lighter one with its beautiful slight Welshness.
I’ve played DAI several times now, and I’m always delighted that these particular two men, both so well matched in subtlety, intelligence, and their capacity for deceit, are the ones playing this game. That, and the fact that they’re both former antagonists who are now on their cautious way to a friendship, one chess move at a time.
Most of all, I love the fact they’re both palpably having so damn much fun. The prospect of quiet, reserved Solas having fun is not exactly a frequent sight within the game (unless you romance him, which I highly recommend, as it’s by far the most complex portrait of Solas, and is so intrinsically tied to the main story). But he is—Solas is having a blast, and it’s even more fun to realize that he’s even enjoying the fact that he might just have underestimated Bull the tiniest bit. In return, Bull’s having just as much fun while being distracted for a little while from his inner fears, worries, and guilt.
And then, the final move: “You sneaky son of a bitch,” growls Bull cheerfully, as he realizes what Solas has managed to do. At that moment, he’s probably remembering what he himself had said about Solas not too long before—“Half our targets never even see you coming.” And Solas just proved him right, yet again. A great example of how I don’t think there’s any small detail to this game that is inconsequential.
When Bull concedes, he says “Nice game… mage,” and the title is one of respect. As is Solas’s subtle reply of, “And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.” It’s Solas capping the moment, bringing it full circle, and noting for Bull’s benefit, yet again, “You are Tal-Vashoth. And you are still yourself.”
The Bigger Picture
Upon analysis, the big-picture symbolism of Solas’s strategy here is almost painful, by the way, if you’re playing a romanced Inquisitor: He sacrifices several major pieces, and then, decisively, his QUEEN, in order to win. This can be seen as foreshadowing of both Solas’s breakup with (and betrayal of) a romanced Inquisitor… as well as the future sacrifice of Flemeth (Mythal). And let’s not forget that it’s the MAGE that takes down Bull’s King. The symbolism is all just perfect.
My own question is: does it also foreshadow Solas’s future plans post-Trespasser? It just might. Look at the game from a big-picture perspective:
- Develop a multitude of pieces as early as possible
- Place key pieces in strategic and useful locations
- Sacrifice those necessary (no matter how powerful… or beloved)
- Create compelling distractions to pull focus
- Hide in plain sight
- Pounce, kill, and win
- Sit amongst the wreckage of the world and weep for what you’ve lost
Okay, fine, that last one was added by me.
Meanwhile, now’s a great time to take a look at the dialogue for the entire chess match, so I’ve included it below, and have also joined all the separate banters into one, single conversation.
The Mind-Chess Banters (Complete):
Solas: How do you feel, Iron Bull? Do you need a distraction to focus your mind?
Iron Bull: Well, this area’s low on dancing girls. Sadly.
Solas: King’s pawn to E4.
Iron Bull: You’re shitting me. We don’t even have a board!
Solas (amused): Too complicated for a savage Tal-Vashoth?
Iron Bull (grumbling): Smug little asshole. Pawn to E5.
Solas: Pawn to F4. King’s Gambit.
Iron Bull: Accepted. Pawn takes pawn. Give me a bit to get the pieces set in my head. Then we’ll see what you’ve got.
Solas: So, where were we? Ah, yes. Mage to C4.
Iron Bull: Little aggressive. Arishok to H4. Check.
Solas: Speaking of aggressive. I assume Arishok is your term for the Queen? King to F1.
Iron Bull: Pawn to B5.
Solas: All right. You have my curiosity. Mage takes Pawn.
Iron Bull: You call your Tamassrans Mages? Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: You call your Knights Ben-Hassrath? Incidentally, Knight to F3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath makes more sense than horses. They’re sneaky, and they can move through enemy lines. Arishok to H6.
Solas: Pawn to D3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to H5. Ha! All right, take some time. Think about your life choices.
Solas: All right, Bull. If you are prepared: Knight to H4.
Iron Bull: Arishok to G5. So, you giving up the Tamassran at B5 or the Ben-Hassrath at H4?
Solas: Neither. Knight to F5.
Iron Bull: Pawn to C6. Left your Tamassran hanging out.
Solas: And you, your Knight. Or Ben-Hassrath, if you will. Pawn to G4.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: Hmm. Tower to G1.
Iron Bull: Ha! Pawn takes your Tamassran—or Mage, or whatever it is.
Solas: I get the idea.
Iron Bull (teasing): Too much time playing with spirits, Fade Walker.
Solas: We shall see.
Solas (after a pause): If you have a moment, Bull: Pawn to H4
Iron Bull: Arishok to G6.
Solas: Pawn to H5. Careful.
Iron Bull: You’re the one who lost his Mage. (Chuckling) Arishok to G5.
Solas: Queen to F3.
Iron Bull: Oh, clever. Almost trapped my Arishok. Ben-Hassrath to G8.
Solas: Mage takes Pawn, threatens Queen.
Iron Bull: Ugh! Arishok to F6.
Solas: Knight to C3. You’ve developed nothing but your Queen.
Iron Bull: Don’t get cocky, you’re still one Tamassran down. Tamassran to C5, by the way.
Solas: Hmm. I will need to consider. (Pause) After careful consideration: Knight to D5.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Pawn at B2.
Solas: Mage to D6.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Tower. Check. (Pause) What are you doing, Solas?
Solas: King to E2.
Iron Bull: All right, Tamassran takes Tower. Your last Tower, by the way.
Solas: Pawn to E5.
Iron Bull: Really. I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a Pawn? Are you even trying anymore?
Solas: Think about it, my friend.
Iron Bull: All right, Solas. I’ve thought about it. Ready to finish this? Ben-Hassrath to A6.
Solas: Knight takes Pawn at G7. Check.
Iron Bull: Mmmhmm. King to D8.
Solas: Queen to F6, Check.
Iron Bull: And now my Ben-Hassrath takes your Queen. You’ve got no Towers. You’re down to a single Mage. Too bad you wasted time moving that Pawn to… to… (Pause) You sneaky son of a bitch.
Solas: Mage to E7. Checkmate.
(The Iron Bull growls. A pause.)
Iron Bull: Nice game… mage.
Solas: And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.
Sera (if present): Uhhhh… KING me!
If you have Sera along for the final banter, her presence, and that very funny line at the end, is the perfect capper on the game (and emphasizes what a feat it actually was, and how far beyond most people it would be).
It’s a terrific and memorable scene in DAI. But just remember—you’ll never experience it, if you don’t save the Chargers.
Watching the Game on a Traditional Chessboard
Do you want a visual representation of the moves while you listen to the conversation from the game? Take a look at this video on YouTube, which provides a seamless full aural and visual recreation of the game for easy visual reference by YouTube user Huevos Rancheros.
Images courtesy of Bioware
This article is a reprint (with minor modification) of an article originally published by Angela D. Mitchell on DumpedDrunkandDalish.com.
Nazis Upset Over Wolfenstein II Promoting Nazi-Free America
Following a tweet from the Wolfenstein official Twitter account that included a short video teaser for the upcoming Wolfenstein II, online outrage erupted due to the tweet’s harsh anti-Nazi stance and the trailer’s inclusion of the words “Not My America” over shots of Nazi soldiers marching. Because apparently, the morality of supporting Nazis is a question again.
— Wolfenstein (@wolfenstein) October 5, 2017
The spin on Donald Trump’s infamous campaign slogan drew a hostile reaction from those who decided attacking Nazis is too political for a franchise that has always been based around killing Nazis. Some took it as an attack on conservatism rather than a clever slogan with a timely message, or some kind of unfitting attempt to make the series political by focusing on the very thing the series is about.
imagine seeing the words “no more nazis” and reacting like this pic.twitter.com/5L9b8CPm3s
— Vylash #TeamKICK (@MiraVylash) October 6, 2017
I wish I could feign surprise. This series has let players shoot Nazis for decades now without any significant negative reaction. Unfortunately, Nazis have become increasingly relevant lately for all the wrong reasons. I’m glad we have Wolfenstein to remind us Nazism is a terrible thing. Here’s hoping other games take their lead. Maybe even the Call of Duty franchise, which is set to return to its Nazi-killing roots with this year’s Call of Duty: WWII. I haven’t bought Call of Duty in years. Give me an ad like this, and I’ll buy five copies.
Bravo, Bethesda. Bravo.
Wolfenstein II releases on October 27. Buy it and make Nazism shameful again.