Ralph Shills for the Internet

Hot on the heels of Ready Player One, Ralph Breaks the Internet is the latest entry in an emerging genre of nostalgic mash-up films. Remember Star Wars? Remember Iron Man? Remember The Muppets? Well, even if you don’t, they’ve been smooshed together and thrown onscreen to elicit those warm, fuzzy feelings we associate with the characters that entertained us as children. It feels egregiously cynical to jam together a bunch of things that people like, loosely thread a plot between them and serve it up as something new, but if that’s what people keep paying to see then that’s what’ll keep getting made.

My curmudgeonly attitude towards Ralph Breaks the Internet’s reliance on a hodgepodge of familiar characters aside, there’s something far more insidious at play in this trailer. Freed from the constraints of their respective arcade games and let loose on the Internet, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) gaze out over the sparkling vista of the open web. As they spot giant logos for Amazon, Facebook, Google, Snapchat and more, Vanellope sighs, “This is the most beautiful miracle I’ve ever seen”.

To treat a company like Google with this kind of reverence in a children’s film strikes me as nothing less than corporate indoctrination. It’s barely been two months since Facebook was revealed to have woefully mishandled our personal information but its logo is presented here as something to ooh and ahh at, a shining symbol of safety and familiarity. Its portrayal here is a whitewashing of its brand and all its associated issues and concerns, and it positions Facebook and its ilk as old friends, as loveable characters in your life no different than Kermit the Frog or Buzz Lightyear. That’s a powerful, dangerous message to beam into the developing mind of a child, and it honestly scares me.

Consciously or not, media like Ralph Breaks the Internet normalises the overbearing presence of enormous brands and corporations in our lives, conditioning children not to question their unethical practices and the influence they wield over our culture. Having not seen the film, it’s entirely possible that Ralph Breaks the Internet takes these companies to task and criticises their place in our world, but I doubt it. There’s a reason why Google and Snapchat and Facebook and the like have all given their permission to have their real brands featured in the film as opposed to being replaced with fictional equivalents: they’re getting something out of this, and we should be extremely suspicious as to what that is.

PUBG Corp sues Epic Games over Fornite

Battle royale games have become the hot new genre over the last year or so, with the success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds inspiring a wave of imitators. With Fornite stealing more and more of the limelight, however, it looks like PUBG Corp is starting to get more serious about squashing its competition. From TechCrunch:

Now the company behind PUBG is taking Fortnite’s creators to court. PUBG (the company), a subsidiary of Bluehole (the company behind PUBG, the game — slightly confusing, I know), has filed a suit against Epic Games over copyright infringement concerns. The South Korean suit, noted by The Korea Times, takes particular issue with Fortnite’s battle royale mode.

Bluehole has been vocal about the similarities since the new mode was released in September. The developer released a statement at the time, addressing “growing concerns” with its former partner.

It’s hard to imagine PUBG Corp being too upset about Fortnite were it not enjoying such incredible financial success; the game made almost $300 million in April alone. Fornite is also steadily garnering more mainstream press attention, with Twitch streamer Ninja breaking the record for concurrent viewers when he played with Drake in March. All of this has eaten away at mindshare PUBG once occupied almost exclusively, so it’s easy to see why its creators are anxious for the game not to become an also-ran in a genre it popularised. That said, there’s something about taking actual legal action that comes off as a little… desperate.

While it’s true that Epic Games almost certainly wouldn’t have added a Battle Royale mode to Fornite were it not for PUBG’s success, I’m not sure that they’ve infringed upon any copyrights with their game. I’m not a lawyer (as my bank balance will happily attest), but PUBG’s concept is lifted wholesale from the novel and film Battle Royale and bears distinct similarities to games that creator Brendan Greene has worked on in the past such as H1Z1. There are other, smaller similarities between the way two games play, but given that PUBG Corp has previously tried to sue creators of mobile PUBG clones for including frying pans as weapons, it’s hard to know how much they can legitimately lay claim to and how much is just them being rather petty.

Even if there is a legitimate legal case to be made here, the decision to sue makes PUBG Corp look scared of the existential threat that Fortnite poses. What’s the net benefit of such a public display of low confidence? Whatever happens next in their case against Fortnite, PUBG Corp have got bigger problems coming their way. Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII is set to include a battle royale mode of its own, and I’d put money on other juggernaut franchises like Halo doing the same sooner rather than later. Once the scrappy upstart, PUBG now finds itself in a strange middle ground, neither David nor Goliath in an industry that thrives on iterating upon existing ideas. Fornite isn’t the first game to borrow ideas from PUBG and won’t be the last, and PUBG Corp is going to have to figure out how to deal gracefully with the flood of imitators that always follows a successful product.

Syd Matters, “Obstacles” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

I’ve recently been playing through Life is Strange, an episodic interactive drama that passed me by when it was first released in 2015. This is a style of game I’ve been intrigued by ever since I first played and fell in love with Telltale’s The Walking Dead series all the way back in 2012, with its branching storylines and shifting character relationships quickly investing me in its plot. The influence of that incredible game is overt throughout Life is Strange, but developer Dontnod brings enough new ideas to the table to keep the experience fresh; unlike Telltale’s ever-growing stable of adaptations, Life is Strange features a completely original premise and cast of characters and, despite not offering the familiarity of a beloved franchise, was very quickly able to draw me into its world.

18-year-old Max Caulfield, a quietly intelligent photography enthusiast, is struggling through her first few weeks at elite arts school Blackwell Academy when she discovers she has the ability to rewind time. This rewind mechanic is put to very creative uses in Life is Strange, serving as not only a tool with which to solve puzzles but also as a way to preview the immediate consequences of decisions made by the player. Early on, shaken by the sight of one student threatening another with a gun, Max must decide whether or not to tell the school principal what she’s witnessed. Will the principal believe her? Will he be more suspicious if Max simply says nothing? While the player must eventually make a final decision, they’re able to get enough of a glimpse of the future to inform their choice. Max’s constant revisiting of her own past eventually has graver consequences but the game remains on a very human level, using a huge science fiction concept to tell a personal, intimate story.

“Obstacles” by Syd Matters, used to score the final moments of Episode 1, is similarly dichotomous in this regard, feeling small and epic all at the same time. As freak snowfall hits the sunny town of Arcadia Bay, we briefly visit each of the major characters in the story as they’re stunned by this strange weather, unaware that it represents a portent of a far more devastating storm. “Obstacles” is a major factor in the success of this sequence, linking these small scenes together and making these disparate characters feel like parts of a bigger whole. Something extraordinary is brewing in Arcadia Bay and its going to impact on the lives of each and every one of these people, something that is all too easy to forget when seeing so much of a story from the perspective of its main character. Other songs by Syd Matters can be heard throughout the game but none are used quite as successfully as “Obstacles”, contributing as it does to a transcendent sequence that is truly moving, something that too many people believe video games to be incapable of.

Horizon: Zero Dawn thoughts

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the plot of Horizon Zero Dawn, up to and including its ending.

Horizon Zero Dawn is an outstanding game, and if you own a PS4 then you owe it to yourself to play it. It really is as simple as that. I’ve got plenty of thoughts on the game, and will elaborate on many of them here, but the honest truth is that if you overlook this title, you’re denying yourself one of the best gaming experiences of the year. I wish I’d made time for it sooner, but luckily, the fact that Horizon has sold over three million copies since its original release in June means that it was a deserved success with or without my help.

We’ve seen a deluge of post-apocalyptic fiction over the last decade, but Horizon brings something refreshing and different to the genre. This isn’t a story about our civilisation falling apart, but a tale of the people who’ll inhabit this earth long after we’re dead and gone. It’s eventually revealed that the game takes place around a thousand years into the future, with protagonist Aloy learning more and more about 21st century humans and our strange quirks like ‘computers’ and ‘corporations’. Humanity was wiped out by war machines of its own creation, and it has taken nearly a millennium for conditions to reach a point where human beings can once again safely exist. It apparently hasn’t taken long for humanity to default to its destructive tendencies, though, with humans dividing themselves into tribes and fiercely protecting their own territories. Born under mysterious and unnatural circumstances, Aloy comes of age and endeavours to finally gain the respect and acceptance of her own clan, unaware of the greater role she’ll soon play in deciding the fate of her entire species.

That much backstory could easily bog a plot down, but developer Guerilla Games (of Killzone fame) wisely leaves much of this lore for the player to find organically, rather than shoving it in their face. Mementos of the past are abundant throughout the world, from objects as tiny as broken digital watches buried in the ground to the skeletal remains of skyscrapers towering over the landscape. The bodies of humans and animalistic machines lie in clearings, the battles that felled them given new life in the player’s imagination. This game is a masterclass in environmental storytelling; Guerilla has created a beautiful world and filled it with secrets and mysteries, each of which represents a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. When you throw in a host of mechanical monsters roaming through the fields, mountains and rivers, each sub-species of which reacting to and attacking you in a different way, you get a world where anything seems possible. Anything, up to and including this:

Hahaha, what the hell.

It’s not just Horizon’s world and story that make it a joy to experience, but its gameplay too. It’s not that any of the individual gameplay elements are notably unique in and of themselves: Aloy’s Focus device grants her the equivalent of Detective Vision from the Batman: Arkham series, dialogue options are selected with the conversation wheel from Mass Effect, and the skill tree and item crafting system aren’t anything that hasn’t been done in many other RPGs. The blend of all these systems, however, does provide an extremely fresh gameplay experience. There’s an element of puzzle-solving involved in fighting the machines, with each species having different strengths and weaknesses that must be exploited in order to dispatch with them as efficiently as possible. The combat itself is so versatile that my approach to it hugely over the course of the game; while I started out using mainly bombs and arrows, by the end of the game I was overriding and corrupting enemies and manipulating them into taking each other out while I hid safely in the bushes nearby. I’m a sucker for games that allow for seamless switching between stealth and all-out combat, leaving it to me to decide what tactics to implement in each encounter, and Horizon offer this variety and flexibility in spades.

It’s a pity, then, that the game’s final moments left me with such a sour taste in my mouth. There’s no cheaper move for a story to pull than to immediately undo the events of its climax, but sadly that’s exactly what Horizon does. In a post-credits scene, it’s revealed that HADES, the malevolent AI that serves as the big bad and final boss of the game, is still alive. Okay? So what did I just spend an hour fighting him and his minions for? If this reveal had been saved for the all-but-confirmed Horizon 2, with HADES’ resurrection being revealed early on in the game, I’d be more willing to accept it. After all, it doesn’t feel like a cheat when Darth Vader appears alive and well at the start of The Empire Strikes Back. The last time we see him in Star Wars, his ship has been blown to shit and is spinning out of control into the black void of space. It’s not looking good for him, but his survival feels possible without being assured. That ambiguity is the key; I doubt Star Wars would be as well-loved or iconic if it included a stinger scene of Vader trying to hitch-hike his way home from the Outer Rim. I think Horizon should have employed a similar tactic here: if they really have bigger plans for HADES, then let us feel like we’ve achieved something before bringing him back.

That’s a relatively minor complaint, though, and it certainly didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the game in any significant way. I’d put around 60 hours into Horizon by the time I finished the main quest line and would have been glad to see it go on longer, if only to spend more time in Guerilla’s gorgeous world. I’m greatly looking forward to the Frozen Wilds expansion, which promises add new quests, machines and areas to an already gigantic experience. That a game can go on for so long, and pack in so much content, without outstaying its welcome and even leaving an audience begging for more is a sure sign of something special. If you’re a latecomer like me, then please don’t wait too much longer. Horizon is an incredible game and, presumably, the start of something even bigger and better, and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor of what promises to be Sony’s next enormous franchise.