Ghost in the… Well They Tried…

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In this piece, I deep-dive on several facets of the Ghost in the Shell universe and thoroughly discuss the live-action movie. Read at your own risk.

Whenever a movie is widely considered a critically-acclaimed classic, I never fail to find it underwhelming the first time I view it. Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, most recently, 1995’s Ghost in the Shell have all fallen victim. Part of it has to do with hearing over and over and over from every source that these movies are the best movies, which sets my expectations unrealistically high. The other part stems from my white boy brain of (below?) average intelligence not being able to fully grasp their monumental and multilayered themes when I watch them. For the most part, when I endure a work of art I’ve been told repeatedly is truly groundbreaking, I assume I’m too dumb to understand it if I find it unsatisfactory. I rarely leap to thinking it’s overrated or boring. Usually I just don’t fully get it and move on.

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I watched the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell for the first time in 2016 when I was 28. When the credits rolled I thought, “…That’s it?” I was glad I had experienced it, but wasn’t necessarily moved by it. I’m both not sophisticated nor culturally versed enough to understand a lot of it in the ways I’m supposed to, and I came to it so late that it had been usurped by several other movies/video games/TV shows that use its ideas for inspiration.

Ghost in the Shell, which originated as a manga, stars Major Motoko Kusanagi leading an elite public security task force called Section 9 in near-future Japan. Kusanagi is comprised of a completely cybernetic body with a human brain controlling it. Although 1995’s Ghost in the Shell was the first movie version of the manga, it interestingly eschews an origin story for Kusanagi. Instead of focusing on how she was created and her background, the anime hits the ground running with Kusanagi’s task force chasing a Super Wizard-Class Hacker (wink wink) called the Puppet Master. On the surface it’s an action crime caper, but Ghost in the Shell has about 600 layers of philosophical themes about technology, the intersection of humanity and machines, and what it means to be human simmering beneath the surface. As I mentioned, being the American white boy of average intelligence that I am, a lot of the looming philosophical themes flew right over my head. And the humanity and robot themes seemed dated to me, but I have to remember that despite my late-to-the-game viewing, Ghost in the Shell pioneered some of these themes two decades ago.

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When word on the street confirmed a live-action Ghost in the Shell was in the works, my interest in the property reignited. After the first trailer debuted in November 2016, I was suddenly interested in diving back in.

Luckily for me, Ghost in the Shell expanded into several versions after the 1995 anime debuted. A television series consisting of two 26-episode seasons called Stand Alone Complex came first in 2002. A proper sequel to the original anime film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence arrived in 2004, and almost 10 years later a 4-episode prequel series, Ghost in the Shell: Arise, debuted. A few other movies (such as the horribly titled Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie) have popped up here and there, but most of them recap events from the Stand Alone Complex series into shorter, slightly more digestible form. Needless to say, I had a full plate of Shells to crack into.

I made it my mission to work through most of what I could from the ever-expanding universe before capping it all off with the live-action version once it hit theaters. I pulled most of it off, and have consumed 30 hours and 43 minutes of Ghost in the Shell-related content according to my calculations.

Despite my binge, I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the subject. But I’m far far more acquainted with the subject matter than I was three months ago. I can tell the difference between a Tachikoma and Logicoma, for starters. And on a good day I can name off every member of Section 9 and their corresponding special skills off the top of my head.

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Like any manga-turned-anime-turned-animated series-turned-live-action film, Ghost in the Shell contains several different timelines and some of them don’t fit together neatly. That’s OK. I have no qualms with having more than one origin story and different timelines. We live in a world where live-action Spider-Man has been rebooted three times with six movies in a 15-year span, after all.

I have never sampled the manga, so I can’t speak to it. Given the movies and series, Major Kusanagi has two prevalent origins. In Season 2 of Stand Alone Complex, it’s vaguely established that an all-human Kusangi survived a plane crash when she was a child. After spending some time in a hospital, she chose to have her body augmented in an experimental cybernetic surgery to regain all of its function. Most importantly, she could fold paper cranes with a single hand.

Meanwhile in Arise, she’s rewritten as a fetus taken from her dying mother’s womb and raised into a fully cybernetic body.

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I admire Ghost in the Shell’s universe for not over-focusing on how exactly Kusanagi became what she is. When her origins are brought up, it’s more passively observed than intensely focused on. This is a welcome switch from, say, Batman where every fucking movie made about him has to show a lengthy sequence of his parents getting killed in case you forgot about it from the past 10 movies that also showed it.

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For whatever it’s worth, after my deep dive into its universe, Stand Alone Complex and Innocence are my favorite works. Where the original 1995 movie bobs back and forth between intensely serious and boringly philosophical, Stand Alone Complex functions more like an episodic crime procedural. It injects a healthy amount of philosophy as well, but it has consistent pockets of lightheartedness, action, clever writing and existential mystery. There’s something in it for everyone. Then again, considering Stand Alone Complex’s two seasons span more than 20 viewing hours, more room for varied tone exists. Twenty hours of Zack Snyder-esque intensity would be unbearable.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is, first and foremost, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Its animation, which blends CGI with traditional anime, is quite honestly jaw-dropping. The tone, set design and story that focuses almost entirely away from Major Kusanagi are masterful. Innocence does something I love with sequels – it uses its predecessor as a jumping-off point for a new detective story in the same universe rather than being a simple Part 2.

After that, Arise excelled at bringing superbly animated fluid action to the franchise and reboots Kusanagi into a new, young-looking character, but it didn’t stick with me as much as the other entries.

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I suppose this all brings me to 2017’s live-action Ghost in the Shell, which is why I leapt headfirst down this robotic rabbit hole in the first place.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) had several uphill battles to fight as soon as word got out that it was in production. From the get-go, any well-received film getting rebooted garners a negative reaction. People like the old one and a new version just gives it room to be marred or misunderstood. The fact that this was a case of anime being lifted to live-action only intensified it.

Secondly, and more importantly, was the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead role of the Major. This serves as a prime example of whitewashing – Hollywood’s preference to cast a potentially bankable white person in a role originally written or intended for a minority character. In this case, Major Motoko Kusanagi was originally written as Japanese in a very Japan-centric story. Casting someone non-Asian removes assets of story connectivity and inclusivity for the potential payoff of a more recognizable face. And with a recognizable face comes the potential for more box office earnings. This isn’t the first example of whitewashing, nor will it be the last, I’m sure.

Scarlett Johansson is a totally bankable action star though, especially in overseas markets. It’s easy to see why director Rupert Sanders reached out to her as his preference to lead the movie. Physically, she looks similar to how Major appeared in the 1995 anime, and she’s a bonafide experienced action and sci-fi actor. She’s been a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for seven years, and her most recent headlining action movie, 2014’s Lucy, grossed $463 million — 72 percent of which came from foreign markets. Given the notion that foreign markets aren’t as off-put by seeing Hollywood whitewash roles, I’m sure Ghost in the Shell’s producers are hoping for another Lucy-like home run overseas.

That would also explain why the cast and crew premiered the movie in several overseas areas before bringing it to the United States. On an alarming note, general critic screenings for Ghost in the Shell in the U.S. didn’t happen until the day before its domestic release. In a world where it’s not unusual to see movie reviews published weeks before the premiere, this plan smelled a little fishy. It’s almost as if Sanders and Co. knew American audiences would be the most critical and resistant to this movie and wanted to keep it from them as long as possible. In the span of a single day between early reviews hitting and the American screenings, Ghost in the Shell’s Rotten Tomatoes score went from a Fresh 67 percent to a Rotten 49 percent. And it’s only declined since then. Woof.

I don’t think it’s a particularly great look for Johansson to play a role originally written for a Japanese woman, but the blame shouldn’t be placed on her alone. Although the actor portraying the role tends to take all the heat for dumb Hollywood decisions — the director, producers and writers are more to blame, yet they’re conveniently left out of the conversation most of the time. Sanders and Johansson’s flimsy defense was that the role was rewritten as a white woman for the movie. This is true, but it doesn’t necessarily make it OK. They can also fall back on the fact that Major is a cyborg, ergo kind of, sort of genderless? In an attempt to bolster these claims, the 1995 anime’s director Mamoru Oshii has flatly stated he thinks Johansson is right for the role. Make of that what you will, as the marketing team sure used it to its advantage.

The unfortunate consequence that comes with casting Johansson is that, even if the film itself ends up being fantastic, the haze of its controversy will never go away. It’ll always be the “but” that quickly chases each compliment.

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The entire movie’s marketing campaign led me to believe the issue wouldn’t be remotely addressed in the movie itself. After the first wave of criticism at Johansson’s casting sparked, it became evident they were erasing “Motoko Kusanagi” from the film entirely and just calling her “Major”. It would be pretty unfaithful and insensitive to have Johansson portray someone with an Asian name, so they stuck that Band-Aid on.

However once the film gets rolling, it reveals they renamed her completely to Mira Killian. They kept the initials but gave her a Western name. This name only comes up a handful of times in the movie, but the fishy smell returned as this detail was left out of any and all marketing beforehand. Had audiences learned that they slapped a Western name on her, someone probably would’ve lit Paramount Pictures on fire.

Instead of leaving it there, the movie decides to take it an interesting step further and give a climactic reveal that before Johansson’s version of the Major was assembled, she actually was Motoko Kusanagi and her brain was wiped and placed into a white woman shell. I never dreamt they’d be dumb enough to literally brainwash the Asian out of the brain before implanting it into a shell and use that as a plot point to try and make it make sense. Things get especially awkward when the movie reveals that Kusanagi’s Japanese mom is still alive. You get a strange scene that attempts to be heartwarming by featuring Kusanagi’s Asian mom hugging her now-white cyborg daughter. It’s just… weird?

That is the underlying origin story to Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, though — which is totally original from any source material and what the entire movie works toward revealing. Motoko Kusanagi was a young Japanese woman living as an anti-technology advocate when she ran away from home to live in a refugee-like area in the city’s dark depths. Hanka, a government funded technology company kidnaps these runaways and runs experiments to transplant their brains into cybernetic bodies. They intend to place them in Section 9’s task force once they have the perfect brain-to-body take. Kusanagi is that perfect take, but her brain is wiped during the experiment to make her easier to control. She’s manufactured as a weapon and told she was the only android produced. Once she’s released, she begins an assignment to hunt Kuze – a criminal hacker – and eventually finds out that Hanka lied to her and seeks revenge. Much like the original anime – if this story had been produced 20 years ago it would’ve felt fresh. At this point, it’s been done to death.

There’s a fascinating premise to the idea of a minority race being captured and injected into a caucasian shell, but this movie is too tone-deaf to explore it. Perhaps in more capable hands it could be successful, but Ghost in the Shell doesn’t seem super interested in diving into the anime’s premise on technology and humanity in a sophisticated way. Instead it exists as homage – a greatest hits, if you will – of moments from the Ghost in the Shell universe packed into a movie so obviously produced to make money it almost hurts.

And if it earns enough money to qualify as a commercial success, Ghost in the Shell is the kind of vehicle that could spawn several sequels. Unfortunately if more are made and Johansson keeps coming back, the controversy surrounding her casting is only going to get worse. The movie tries to address it and wash it away, but borks it so heavily I can’t even figure out why they tried. Hollywood might not be a charity, they say, but whitewashing certainly isn’t a good look for any movie — especially when that movie danced around the topic for its entire press run only to directly address it in the film in an incredibly stupid way. Why, in god’s name, didn’t they just ignore it and leave it alone?

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Instead of following in the philosophical footsteps of its 1995 anime blueprint, Ghost in the Shell (2017) chooses to focus the entire movie on Major’s origin while serving as a checklist of nods to the universe. As someone who’s been binging anything and everything Ghost in the Shell-related, I appreciated the nods.

The thermoptic-suit building jump from the 1995 anime is here. The shelling sequence is reproduced nearly shot-for-shot. Part of the market chase concluding with the cloaked water fight sequence also appears. A hastily-paced Yakuza club fight (a potential nod to Innocence’s Yakuza shootout) exists. Major rides a motorcycle and has a red jumpsuit – nods to Arise. Geisha robots, which appear in both Stand Alone Complex and Innocence, play a big role early on. Part of Innocence’s interrogation with the android autopsy specialist is here – complete with her lighting a cigarette with a Zippo lighter. Batou has a basset hound, and Stand Alone Complex’s Kuze is the main villain despite him having almost no relation to how he was portrayed in the animated series. They might as well have named him Johnny Android.

These aren’t the only moments lifted from the universe, but they’re some of the major ones (pun intended). I would’ve preferred to see a Tachikoma at some point to lighten the mood a little. Although this live-action version keeps a similar tone to the 1995 anime, it has that Snyder-esque weight of constant grave seriousness. I know Major is an android trying to discover her past identity, but would it kill her or anyone in the cast to emote any happiness ever? She cracks a single joke in the entire movie and the rest is grim sincerity. I didn’t want this to be a comedy by any stretch, but Stand Alone Complex and Arise both effortlessly weave in sharp, light moments among the existential dread. Siphoning some of that over to the live-action version would have made it even more palatable.

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Another aspect it swipes from the Snyder-verse is dark, murky action. Some sequences, such as the skyscraper penthouse shootout and the water fight, are great. The rest is just mediocre. In one instance Major is attacked by dudes wielding cattle prods, and I think the fight sequence would’ve been impressive had it not been in a dark hallway with only stun-rod sparks to light it. The quintessential Major vs. Spider Tank battle also appears, but some shots are so dimly lit it’s almost like they darkened them on purpose to cover up the CGI effects that’ll no doubt be outdated in a few years.

Despite the inconsistent lack of skillfully executed action, it’s impossible to ignore how half the movie’s budget must have gone into CGI for world-building. This isn’t a bad thing, nor does it come off as cheesy or fake. Rupert Sanders has created a beautiful and believable version of what our technologically advanced future could look like, but hasn’t inhabited it with characters that I care about. Money and hard work can buy beauty, but the film lacks any kind of stylish edge. November’s debut trailer for the movie had style in spades compared to the full-length movie. To its credit, I’d prefer a dearth of style to it trying too hard to be stylish. There’s a happy medium in there, but after about 30 minutes Ghost in the Shell stops shooting for it entirely.

I can’t fault the actors here, though. Whitewashing aside, the cast is competent, which features Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt and Takeshi Kitano. They’re all doing the heavy lifting to carry a flimsy script, which is overwrought and irritatingly tells the audience what controversies to ponder without the competence to let the story breathe with enough mystique to dare the audience to think on its own. Then again, this is exactly what I expected. Packaging Japanese-style anime philosophy in a live-action product for an international audience is so difficult it might even be impossible.

Rupert Sanders left his Ghost in the Shell primed for sequels, as any hungry studio would have him do, so I hope we see a day where this universe gets expanded further in live-action. Although the film doesn’t handle its awkward theme of wiping an Asian woman’s brain and transplanting it into a robot body particularly well, a sequel could go in any direction, much like Innocence.

In an ideal world, if Ghost in the Shell were meant to evolve in live-action it would take the form of a Netflix-esque series based on Stand Alone Complex and proceed as serial entries. And hopefully with an Asian lead. That, or a more competent director (Denis Villenueve, Danny Boyle, Alex Garland) would be able to turn this into the thought-provoking sci-fi mind-bender it’s meant to be. But with big-time Hollywood studios at the helm looking to cash in, it’s a fat chance we’ll ever get that. Unfortunately Ghost in the Shell feels less like a labor of love and more like a product studios threw an ungodly amount of money at in order to rake it back in. Only time will tell if that happens.

Despite my luke-warm reception of the live-action movie itself, Rupert Sanders stated in interviews that he hopes this movie will get people interested in the Ghost in the Shell universe. And you know what? It worked. Although his vision for Ghost in the Shell might be in the bottom tier of everything that’s been produced from the universe, I still got those 30 enjoyable hours of ingesting anime movies and the episodic series from it. So, mission accomplished then, Mr. Sanders? You might have produced a mediocre version of something that could have been great, but at least you helped open my eyes to the world of Ghost in the Shell. The net is vast and infinite.

Photography, Parkour and Portraits

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Cody. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/640, Lightroom-adjusted

“Do you have any portrait experience?”

“Not a lot, no. Not standard portraiture, anyway. The funny thing is I actually feel more comfortable lying all over the ground taking pictures of people doing flips over me than I do shooting someone standing still.”

I was sitting across from an interviewer for Lifetouch at Starbucks at about 7:30 at night. This didn’t exactly classify as a standard job interview, but I preferred it to getting grilled with questions while sitting across from three business-casual managers in a corporate conference room.

I guess the setting is irrelevant because I can’t land a job no matter if it’s with Leanne from Lifetouch wearing a Minnie Mouse T-shirt over coffee or answering to three bad bitches in blazers in a boardroom.

But that’s not the point here. The point is the line I gave Leanne about action photography has been wafting around in my head for weeks.

I’m most certainly not a professional photographer. In college I majored in magazine journalism and only took two (completely optional) photojournalism classes. One was about journalistic photography styles, layouts, photo essays, stories and other multimedia journalism. It was almost entirely hands-off, nontechnical and lecture-based.

The other course featured hands-on shooting where we had a photo assignment every week. We were taught technical aspects of photography and trained to shoot situations as photo stories using journalistic integrity. We were allowed to check out cameras, so you can bet your ass every Friday I was in the photo department getting a camera to take home for the weekend. Assignment or not, I was eager to test out camera settings in my free time as I definitely couldn’t afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a camera in college.

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Bowser. Nikon D3300, 35mm, f/4.5, 1/160, No Editing

Fast-forward four years, and I received a Nikon D3300 (their former entry-level DSLR) for Christmas. Because I never prioritized using my own cash to buy a nice camera, I was thrilled to receive one as a gift. After dabbling in photographing my cats and some harsh Midwest snow during the winter, I got in touch with a local parkour group during the summer to experiment with photographing them.

I spent a few years in college practicing parkour, so I knew the moves, the form and thought I’d know how to photograph it well. I hate to qualify my own work, but so far I’ve been satisfied with my pictures.

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Cody. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/4.5, 1/4000, Lightroom-adjusted

My near-immediate venture straight into action photography is probably not the usual route people go when receiving their first camera. In some respects, I feel like I started running before walking. Or maybe flipping before jumping.

Shooting portraits or still-life pictures is probably where most people start. Portraits and action shots require proficiency in different areas. Standard portrait photography’s strengths lie in the perfect arrangement of lights on a subject and sometimes eliciting an emotional response from the subject worth capturing. Photography’s literal definition is capturing an image with light, so it makes sense. If no light exists, no photography exists.

Although it might not be apparent to an untrained eye, a professional studio portrait can (and probably mostly do) use several artificial light sources to capture a subject — maybe a light above the subject’s head, one on each side, and sometimes one underneath or directly behind. Or at the very least reflectors to bounce light around to make it appear it’s coming from multiple sources. Remember getting your yearbook picture taken in grade school and it required those two big flashing light-up umbrellas? Same thing.

Studio photography is predominantly about lighting. I’ve never used a studio nor a professional lighting set-up to photograph someone. I’d love to, but I don’t have access to a studio nor money to afford my own lighting rig in my apartment.

The sheer emotional logistics of taking people’s portraits can be weird, too. Sitting still while having someone point a big black camera in your face isn’t exactly the most comfortable environment.

Less exposure (pun intended) and practice with standard portraiture as opposed to action is why I excel at action shots right now. This is hardly a revelation. Of course I’m better at what I practice regularly. On any given parkour shoot, I have a few hours to work, several people to photograph and they’re all doing different moves over and over again. If I get an action shot wrong, I just dust it off and try again. The athletes I photograph are always doing something worthy of a picture.

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Josh. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/500, Lightroom-adjusted

Many factors go into shooting someone flipping over me outdoors that are out of my control, such as sunlight, clouds, wind, temperature and what colors the athletes are wearing, to name a handful. Any combination of those might compromise a shot. Knowing them and calculating for them is my job.

This contrasts with the completely controlled environment in studio photography. In a studio I theoretically have full control over most conditions. That means if I somehow mess up a studio shoot, I’m the one to blame.

I’m probably just looking for reasons to blame any bad pictures I take on other conditions, right?

I think that’s what I’m doing.

If I get into technical lingo here and there about photography, I can’t stress enough that I’m not a classically taught, professional photographer. If you’re someone who considers yourself seasoned at action photography and you’re reading this, feel free to scoff at my attempts to justify my (potentially wrong) technique. But also feel free to offer tips and suggestions.

Photography is an art, so it’s true there’s no “wrong way” to do it. But it also requires knowledge of individual camera functions, such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, flash and lighting – if you’re shooting in Manual Mode, that is. It’s easy to look at photography the way you look at makeup or drawing or graphic design. You might shrug and say “well how hard can it really be?” until you pick up a camera, brush or pen and try it for yourself.

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Kayla. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, Lightroom-adjusted

From July to November 2016 I shot parkour about 20 times in single sessions that lasted 2-4 hours each. Sometimes it’s one-on-one with someone and sometimes I’m shooting up to about 10 people. On any given shoot, I take about 600-1200 pictures. I end up with about 30 usable shots (taking into account deleting repetitive shots) and maybe 5 that I consider portfolio-worthy.

Before I go any further, I want to let that sink in for a second. Sometimes I’ll take about 1200 pictures and end up with 5 that I love. That’s a 4 percent success rate. That might sound crazy, and maybe it means I’m a terrible photographer. But it is what it is, I guess.

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TJ. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1000, Lightroom-adjusted

I shoot parkour with my Nikon D3300 and an 18-55mm lens. I have a 55-200mm lens as well, but I find it too restrictive for parkour photography. Using a longer lens means I have to stand farther away from the action. For sports photography where photographers can’t be on the field, long lenses on the sidelines are common practice. For parkour, there are no rules, so I can get as close as I want.

I prefer to shoot at 18mm with my shorter lens because a wide focal length offers distortion (bending, if you will) on the frame’s edges – sort of like how all those cool skateboarding videos from the 90s were shot with fisheye lenses. 18mm is not fisheye, but it’s a mild wide focal length.

I also like shooting at 18mm because it lets me get right up in the action. If someone is executing a jump, spin, vault or flip I prefer to be as close as possible and move my body and the camera in conjunction with the athlete.

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Riley. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/5, 1/1250, Lightroom-adjusted

Also, as I’ve mentioned already, one of my favorite stances is just lying on my back and shooting nearly straight up on people flipping over me. It’s impossible to execute that kind of shot with anything greater than 18mm for me.

I generally shoot as fast as I can with the lens as open as possible. I hover the ISO from 200-800. My pictures get grainy at about the 1600 ISO mark, so I keep it low if I can. High ISO is used to compensate for low-light situations and brighten them up. However it can introduce grain and noise that sacrifices picture clarity if your camera doesn’t handle high ISO well. The Nikon D3300 does not handle it well, in my experience.

My camera (and most consumer DSLRs, I think?) maxes its shutter speed at 1/4000 of a second, which is more than enough to freeze even the fastest person in place. I can get decent action photos all the way down to about 1/500 of a second. I’m fortunate to shoot parkour during the summer where the sun is usually out. That means I’m never struggling for lighting, so I can afford a high shutter speed.

I usually shoot in burst mode, which means the camera keeps taking pictures as long as I hold down the shutter button. Burst is a gift and a curse, and I liken it to using a machine gun over a sniper rifle. Burst fire means I’m guaranteed to get a range of shots exposing the flow of an entire move. But it also means I might lose the critical apex shot because my camera will miss it between the burst exposures. I think my camera takes about 5 frames per second if I hold the shutter button down. A high-end Nikon (which will run more than $6,000) takes 12 frames per second. Alternatively, single shot (or decisive moment) photography can guarantee I get the climax shot, but I have to be on my alert A-game to take that single critical frame out of someone doing a move that lasts only 2 seconds.

See how that might be difficult? But that’s a big part of what photography is – getting that split-second, perfect shot.

I also use back-button focusing. Cameras generally default the focus to the shutter button, so you press it down halfway to focus and then continue to press it all the way down to actually take the picture. Back-button photography takes the focusing completely away from the shutter button and reassigns it to a button on the back of the camera for your right thumb to manipulate. After doing a lot of research and testing it out, I prefer back-button focusing. I find that it better allows me to keep my camera moving and trained on the subject while keeping him or her in focus simultaneously. I also don’t have to worry about accidentally taking my finger off the shutter button and losing the focus between shots. How a photographer chooses to focus is her or her own prerogative, and there’s no right or wrong way.

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Cody’s hands. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/8, 1/4000, Lightroom-adjusted

Late in the summer, I started experimenting with bumping the depth of field up. My lateness to try this was probably a poor decision on my part. Aperture and depth of field numbers equal out to how much of the total frame is in focus when you take a picture. The lower the f/stop number, the more open the lens is (which lets more light in to support a faster shutter speed) but the more laser-focused and shallow the depth of field is. A higher f/stop number closes up the lens, which requires a longer shutter speed to let the appropriate amount of light in to properly capture an image. A higher depth of field gives greater focus to the entire image – foreground to background.

Early in the summer when I started shooting I was obsessed with the notion that I needed to keep the lens as open (therefore as shallow) as possible to bring in maximum light to support a fast shutter speed. After all, for action photography shutter speed is everything. The last thing I want when shooting parkour is for the people to end up blurry in pictures. I had a die-hard 1/4000-of-a-second-or-nothing attitude.

My open-aperture shots are still fine, but I’ll try to keep my f/stop higher from now on. You live and you learn, eh?

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Mitchell. Nikon D3300, 18mm, f/4, 1/400, Lightroom-adjusted

Sometimes I use Adobe Lightroom to edit, but I usually save that for portfolio-worthy pictures or ones that need some love to go from OK to good. So far I use Lightroom for minimal changes. I pull exposure, contrast, clarity and color saturation around, but I try not to highly stylize my shots. I want them to remain pure to how I shot them while punching the color and clarity up some. I use Lightroom in the same way someone might apply minimal makeup to enhance his or her features rather than cover them up.

I think I’ve covered all the bases I can think of for my process on shooting parkour. As I mentioned before, the way I go about shooting might not be the best way, but I have yet to collaborate with other action photographers about their techniques. I’m mostly on my own and learning as I go.

I’m a guy with an entry-level DSLR, two lenses and shooting what I can with what I have. Maybe I’ll experiment with more standard portraiture soon, too. Perhaps on humans instead of my cats. I certainly want to. For now, parkour photography is my main passion. Maybe if Lifetouch ever opens a Parkour Division they’ll hire me. A boy can dream. 🙂

If you’re interested in seeing more of my work or looking at my personal social media pages, you can visit my about.me page where all my links live.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, or talking shit about a game I love

This piece contains major spoilers for Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Read at your own discretion.

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I take no pleasure in stating what I’m about to say. As a matter of fact, I can only type these words while heaving a long, hearty sigh:

Almost every individual aspect of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is worse than Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

I know. I’m sorry.

Let me throw in the biggest official disclaimer I can, though – I still love Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It is nowhere approaching what I would consider a bad game. It’s not even an average game. Despite the long list of critiques I’ll go through, I think Mankind Divided is an excellent game. I swear.

However, after finishing it three times and spending a total of about 60-80 hours with it (and planning to play it much, much more), I must use its predecessor as a basis for comparison when I say it’s worse in almost every aspect.

The story is worse.

The characters aren’t as interesting.

The writing isn’t as intriguing or sharp.

The visual design is way more average than I was expecting.

The amount of telling instead of showing is embarrassing.

The story’s pacing is odd.

The dungeon-type missions aren’t as involved or interesting.

(On a really nit-picky note — the title screen and opening credits sequence are also below average compared to Human Revolution’s)

The only aspects Mankind Divided excels at that its predecessor didn’t are the control mechanics and the side missions.

Yep. That’s it.

To put the bottom line out there early: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s story feels like a completely inconsequential second act in a trilogy. It feels like an average stepping stone working its way up to something bigger to come. This is especially obtuse considering the tough race war subject matter it attempts to provide social commentary on.

Maybe if I’m lucky they’ll pull that quote for the box art on the inevitable Game of the Year edition later.

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There’s a chance I could be holding the bar too high when playing this game. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Deus Ex: Human Revolution than me. I’ve played it at least 20 times. Probably more. I’ve purchased it three times. I wrote a 6-part blog series about it. I have a fucking half-sleeve tattoo inspired by its design, for crying out loud. In all actuality, there’s probably no way Mankind Divided even stood a chance of being better than Human Revolution for me. But having high expectations doesn’t discount my thoughts about it.

I’m more than certain for the average gamer who played through Human Revolution once and liked it, Mankind Divided will be a great sequel for them. Like I said, I think this is a really good game. But measured by its individual facets, it simply doesn’t come close to Human Revolution.

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When initial marketing started rolling out for Mankind Divided, developer Eidos Montreal set up what they called a “mechanical apartheid” for the story – “apartheid” literally being a South African term coined for non-white oppression. Some took issue with their use of the word in this context for marketing. To be honest, I didn’t really care, but I understand what it’s about.

Basically what Mankind Divided sets up is a story about non-augmented people (Naturals) versus augmented people (Augs) in a direly oppressive state. In Human Revolution’s story, human enhancement (by means of implanting cybernetics into human bodies) was on the rise. As expected, it was met with controversy. Some enhancements were obvious, such as artificial limbs with extra capabilities. Series protagonist Adam Jensen himself has military-grade arms that shoot explosive beads in a circle around him — not exactly the prosthetic you want everyone on the street having.

Other augmentations are less noticeable –- discrete neural implants that aid in reaction timing, perception and focus.

At the end of Human Revolution’s story, a human augmentation technology pioneer activated a kill switch that altered neural chips in augmented people and drove them insane. Many spiraled into violent sprees. They no longer had control over their augmentations and fell mercy to their innermost savage instincts. This is the pivotal moment that kicked off the mechanical apartheid — thousands dying at the synthetic hands of augmented people. They could no longer be trusted and society began to cast them down.

In the two years between Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, the upper class yuppies who could afford these fancy robot body parts have now sunk to the lowest class and Naturals are the new upper class. Augs must continually take a drug called Neuropozyne to help their bodies cope with robotic implants. As it turns out Neuropozyne is in high demand and short supply, which causes tension among the Augs themselves.

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The stench of an artificial race war wafts around the game as it attempts to make commentary on how police brutality is high on Augs. As a means of protection, entire rundown ghettos are constructed as aid zones for them. Several businesses in Mankind Divided have separate Aug Entrances and Human Entrances much like in America’s pre-civil rights era. I think I’d be able to take this attempt at commentary more seriously if it weren’t a simple class-status flip. How edgy — the new lower class used to be the upper class. Innovative.

Some of the marketing even featured a banner reading “Aug Lives Matter” ripped straight from today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Mankind Divided came under fire for this decision to use current events as marketing just before the game launched.

Joke’s on them though, because despite Eidos Montreal’s attempts to make social issues a big focus in Mankind Divided, it just never feels effective.

While playing as Jensen, the worst discrimination I faced was having police unexpectedly stop him to check his identification papers every once in a while. After about a 10-second pause for the officer to look his papers over, Jensen is back on his way to whatever mission he’s going on. Occasionally people will mutter Aug slurs to him, as well. My favorite is “clank.”

Jeez, that’s some rough social commentary right there. If they wanted to really drive it home they probably should’ve just had police shoot and kill Jensen for no reason randomly throughout the game. That would’ve been far more impactful than checking his papers (and never finding anything wrong with them) a handful of times over a 30-hour campaign.

It’s hard to feel threatened when I’m playing as a character who has about three guns on him at any given time, a cloaking mechanism, a shield and arms that shoot explosive blades, bombs and tranquilizing taser rounds.

Keep in mind here Deus Ex’s previous title, Human Revolution, didn’t set the bar very high for storytelling. It was passable, and better than Mankind Divided’s, but still pretty average.

In it, Jensen works as head of security (after resigning from SWAT) for Sarif Industries – one of the leading human augmentation corporations at the time. Jensen’s ex-girlfriend Megan Reed is the head scientist for Sarif and she’s due to present her breakthrough augmentation research to congress at the beginning of the game.

On the night of their flight out from Detroit to Washington DC, Sarif Industries is attacked, and Megan and her core science team (consisting of her and four other scientists) are kidnapped and forced to work off-site to develop the kill switch that ends up driving the augmented people insane.

Human Revolution’s entire plot is about Jensen following up any leads he can on the mercenary team who took Megan and rescuing them.

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Here’s where stakes for Jensen lay:

  1. This is the company he works for, so he’s obligated to find the scientists.
  2. His ex-girlfriend is the highest priority and they might still be involved, so he’s more eager to save her.
  3. Megan basically got him hired at Sarif Industries, so on a professional level he’s driven to find her.
  4. Because Jensen is heavily augmented (not by choice, but to save his life after the attack) he owes it to Augs to rescue the science team to forward their work in human enhancement.

Mankind Divided doesn’t have any stakes that come close to this. Perhaps the most annoying thing about Mankind Divided’s story is that Adam Jensen has very little stake in it at all. Eidos Montreal literally could’ve replaced Jensen with any character in Mankind Divided and the stakes would’ve remained the same. He has no consequence for the story. He serves no greater purpose than an investigative dog sniffing through clues.

Most of the reason for his inconsequential nature is the fact that Eidos Montreal seemed perfectly happy to wipe nearly every story fragment away from the previous game — except the violent kill switch Aug incident. Perhaps they were trying to take a page out of Mass Effect’s book? Well what they didn’t learn from Bioware is when you wash your hands clean from a decent story and character roster from the first game, you need to completely replace it with an equally strong story and roster in the second game. Mass Effect 2 accomplished this. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided does not.

Human Revolution had a core cast of seven characters – Adam Jensen (main character), David Sarif (his boss), Megan Reed (ex-girlfriend/kidnapped scientist), Faridah Malik (Jensen’s pilot), Francis Pritchard (Jensen’s mission handler), Eliza Cassan (illuminati news anchor) and Bill Taggart (anti-aug antagonist). Even less prevalent support characters, such as Hugh Darrow (Aug research pioneer), Tong Si Hung (Triad boss) and Wayne Hass (police station clerk) are memorable.

Only four of those characters return and two of them have such small, inconsequential roles, they don’t impact the story much, if at all.

Megan Reed, who served as the main drive of Human Revolution’s story, shows up to say a handful of sentences in an audio log on an optional quest. Given that her relationship and involvement in the kill switch incident weren’t resolved between her and Jensen at the end of Human Revolution makes the decision to nearly cut her out of the game even more baffling.

Mankind Divided’s script doesn’t offer enough flavor or nuance to appreciate nearly any character in it. A lot of this has to do with the fact that almost every main character is brand new and we’re told (not shown) that Jensen is acquainted with them. Each character is also written with such furrowed brow, boring intensity that the story rarely gets lifted with any snappy light-hearted notes. The only new character who actually has character is Smiley Fletcher, a hilarious eccentric forensics lead with Jensen’s task force.

Another new character, Alex Vega, is introduced as someone with whom Adam has been working for six months. She has ties to an underground activist group bent on exposing the illuminati and finding whose strings they’re pulling.

The game sets up a binary choice system between her and Adam’s boss at Interpol, Director Miller, where a few times during the game players must choose to support Alex or Miller. Maybe Jensen will give encrypted data to Alex and not tell Miller about it. Maybe Jensen will follow one of Miller’s leads for a mission instead of tracking down an assignment for Alex.

The problem here is Miller doesn’t know about Alex, so the stakes are diminished. If I chose to have Jensen go against Miller’s wishes to pursue a lead from Alex, I knew in the back of my mind that the game would find a way to iron it out because Miller doesn’t know about Alex. And Miller is Jensen’s actual boss, where Alex is simply a partner. By the end of the game Miller and Alex still don’t know each other.

The only good thing to come from this system is a point in the game where Jensen has limited time and can only choose between one of two mission between them. It’s rare that a big-budget, triple-A game pushes a player into a situation where they can’t solve everything. (And just as a heads up, Alex’s mission here is probably the best mission in the game).

Another problem with the binary trust system is the game opening with a Miller Interpol mission. This led me to believe that Jensen was allied strongly with Miller. However, by the end of the game (no matter with whom you choose to trust more) it closes with Adam and Alex. If he were meant to be loyal to Alex the whole time it would’ve made more sense to open the game with a mission for her, so I could understand their relationship and how they work together better than just having the game tell me they’ve been cohorts for six months. To be frank, Alex’s introduction in Mankind Divided is so weak, I didn’t feel compelled to side with her anyway.

So here I am stuck in a game asking me to choose repeatedly between two characters. And I don’t really care about either of them.

If Alex were replaced with any side character from Human Revolution, I would’ve felt compelled to work with her more. And their relationship would’ve already been established. Faridah Malik and Frank Pritchard are two of my favorite companions from Human Revolution that could’ve returned. I realize that it’s possible for Malik to die in the previous game, but Eidos Montreal could’ve made her survival the canon story. After all, they brought Jensen back from floating in the Arctic Ocean instead of killing him off like they did the rest of Human Revolution.

I just don’t understand why Eidos Montreal seemed so eager to wash its hands of all the established characters and story from the previous game. While they were at it they should’ve just replaced Jensen with a new protagonist because as I mentioned before, he has very little personal stake here. Every mission he does is just following a lead someone tells him to. Anyone could be doing that.

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What’s even more bizarre is how poorly Mankind Divided sets up its central conflict for the game.

In Human Revolution, the central antagonists strike in the first hour. We meet Jensen and Megan’s science team and then three distinct mercenary leaders kidnap them.

All right. Good. We have our three main bad guys right here.

Sure, the bad guys aren’t characterized very well (and truly aren’t the real final villain) but we at least know who they are. That way as we work our way through the game we understand the pacing as we eliminate each boss. By the time the second bad guy (or woman in its case) is dead, for example, we suspect we’re roughly 60-70 percent through the game.

Mankind Divided starts off with an unknown entity bombing a train station in Prague. This might seem like high stakes, but half the game is Jensen working the case to figure out who bombed it. And every time Jensen comes up with a solid lead at least one side character completely refutes the lead.

This is like Red Tape: the video game.

It makes it difficult to determine how far along you are in the story. And even when you meet the person who ends up being the final boss (several hours into the game — far too long) Mankind Divided doesn’t even nail him down as the main antagonist. The ambiguity makes it awfully difficult to place the ultimate blame on anyone.

The eye-rolling catch here is that because technically the illuminati are behind all the conflicts in Deus Ex, the developers could say “Well, giving Jensen the runaround on solving the station bombing is kind of the point of the game as that’s what the illuminati would want him to do,” to protect themselves. But if they pull that shit in the future I will only pretend to be mad and still buy and play all their games.

Because of it’s uneven conflict setup, Mankind Divided is the kind of game that’s paced in a way where I had no idea I was even on the final mission until the credits were rolling. If it had set up the final boss as a definite entity to be feared from the beginning instead of introducing him so late and having side characters dispute his legitimacy for the whole game, it would’ve felt much better paced.

Another interesting aspect is the game’s final objective hinging on Jensen’s ability to protect Nathaniel Brown, an influential activist, at a convention. The problem? Brown is introduced about an hour before the end of the game. He’s briefly discussed a few times among side characters earlier, but he’s never officially shown until almost the end.

Even Human Revolution was smart enough to handle this better with a different character. Bill Taggard, anti-Aug activist, was specifically introduced with an unskippable conversation with Jensen early on in the game. In a short exchange, we understand who he is, his intent, his irritating (in a good way) power over Jensen and his setup as an antagonist. If Brown had been introduced in this way early on in Mankind Divided, I would’ve better understood his stakes in the story and felt more compelled to carry out my duty to protect him.

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Even though I mentioned earlier that Mankind Divided’s side quests are great — many of them are left open at the end of the game. Not in a good way.

Jensen discovers he has new augmentations implanted that his old boss Sarif never told him about. Understandably, he calls Sarif to figure out why the extra augs are there. Sarif doesn’t know, but the mystery quest opens for Jensen to get to the bottom of it. But by the end of the game, it’s still never established where the augmentations came from.

Koller, who serves as Jensen’s augmentation medic In Mankind Divided, is strongly introduced then visited one more time later. After that he’s never seen nor mentioned again for the last half of the game. He brings up a personal conflict about a mafia organizations’ local leader being secretly augmented and seeing Koller for treatment. Sounds intriguing until the plotline ends with that conversation.

During other parts of the game, Jensen finds concrete evidence that people (the illuminati?) are keeping tabs on him, but never bothers to mention it to anyone nor even acknowledge it. I don’t know about you, but if I found a storage locker full of pictures of me and my associates and a safe with my biological data in it, I’d be asking someone about it.

It’s entirely possible that Eidos Montreal is saving wrap-ups for DLC later. If that’s the case, it’s a pretty big dick move to tease story segments then ask players to pay for additional missions later to wrap them up. Only time will tell.

Overall the entire story aspect of Mankind Divided felt incredibly weak to me. And considering the 5-year gap between games, it only makes its half-baked ideas seem more confusing. Here’s hoping it’s not another 5 years for a sequel. Although if the inevitable next Deus Ex somehow ties everything up, I’ll feel better, but it won’t save Mankind Divided from feeling like one giant inconsequential side quest on the path to meatier objectives.

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Story aside, the aspect that cuts me the deepest on its mediocrity is Mankind Divided’s visual design. In its defense, it is chasing after a slightly different aesthetic than its predecessor. Human Revolution felt like every detail of every stitch of every environment was borne from a single creative entity. Of course, that entity was Art Director Jonathan Jacques-Belletete and his concept artists.

Jacques-Belletete has moved up to Executive Art Director in Mankind Divided and Martin Dubaeu has moved into the role of regular Art Director. I’m not exactly sure what this means for the roles they play, though. I don’t know if Dubeau was more hands-on with the design and Jacques-Belletete oversaw it all? I’m not sure.

The only thing I know is not a single environment in Mankind Divided is as compelling as anything in Human Revolution.

Mankind Divided reaches for a more realistic contemporary aesthetic. This is worth an applause, seeing as it approaches a cityscape in a much more reasonable way. I mentioned Human Revolution felt built from the ground up at once; Mankind Divided’s base city of Prague feels like a real contemporary city with old architecture sitting next to futuristic architecture. This is how cities evolve, after all. As time progresses, buildings are refurbished or rebuilt one at a time. Prague exemplifies this. An old stone building sits next to a building with LED panels covering its façade. A nightclub with futuristic holographic models on its sidewalk is pushed back in an old cobblestone-lined court. Although I understand this more lucrative take, it makes for far less memorable environments.

(As a side-note I’m curious as to why Eidos Montreal picked Prague out of every location they could possible choose to base a game in the world?)

Counter that with the several areas in Human Revolution left major impressions on me:

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David Sarif’s office — with its giant black and gold orb lamps hanging from the ceiling.

FEMA’s basement hallway — with shelves of deactivated Box Guards lining the room as gold-toned overhead lights abruptly phased on.

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Tai Yong Medical – with its bright green and wood-paneled hallways enclosed with large faceted windows.

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Zhao’s office – with its empty picture frames and eerily beautiful red polygonal sculptures.

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LIMB Clinics – with their beautiful glowing partitioned waiting rooms.

Namir’s boss area – with its moving skinless human figures on display.

Megan Reed’s research suite – where every item in it is bleached white.

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These areas were all unique and alluring. They swelled with beauty as their importance heightened over the course of the game.

When it comes to Mankind Divided, not a single area in it meets or exceeds any of my favorite areas of Human Revolution. What a shame. It’s almost like the art directors couldn’t help themselves but cram all their brilliant ideas into Human Revolution. I wish they’d saved some for the sequel now.

Mankind Divided still has an identity and believability about it, but it’s far less unique. If I’d never played Human Revolution and turned on Mankind Divided, there’s a solid chance I wouldn’t recognize it as a Deus Ex game.

Thank goodness the minute-to-minute gameplay is engaging and solid enough to keep me invested.

Gameplay is truly where Mankind Divided (and Human Revolution before it) shines for me. Eidos Montreal kept its pillars-of-gameplay approach to level design true and introduced new control schemes for any type of player to succeed.

Human Revolution claimed it could be played as a stealth game, a shooter or a hacking game. The problem is its single control layout and steep combat difficulty didn’t lend itself to aggressive players. Mankind Divided fixes that by quickening the overall pace and offering control schemes that skew more to traditional cover-shooters if players should choose to go that route. And the schemes can be changed at any point in the game.

For me the fun of Deus Ex has never been in action, explosions and shootouts, though. I prefer to strike like a snake if I strike at all. Sneak in. Sneak out. Leave everyone I can untouched as much as possible. Deus Ex has my favorite brand of stealthy, predatory gameplay.

When tasked with anything in Mankind Divided, I always prefer to holster my weapons and search for the stealthy air duct route. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with infiltrating corporate storage vaults in a bank that boasts itself as the most secure bank on the planet without a single person knowing I did it. Deus Ex is both therapeutic and rewarding for me in this way.

Mankind Divided also has a certain James Bond and Mission Impossible flavor about it that Human Revolution lacked. The aforementioned bank heist is one example. Another involves mingling among guests at a ritzy convention party and plotting how to take several guards down without anyone noticing. Moments such as those really injected a suave new attitude into otherwise status quo gameplay.

Mankind Divided, as with Human Revolution, is the kind of game I can sit and play for 6-8 hours in one chunk with little exhaustion or frustration. It puts me into a state that’s simultaneously relaxed and engaged with intelligent exploration and problem solving. Not many games keep me in this sweet spot, and I’m glad I can count on Eidos Montreal to serve it up for me.

As rare as it is for me to find a game this rewarding, (Alert: back-handed compliment incoming…) even rarer is the sequel that I find below average to its predecessor in nearly every regard that I still love and enjoy playing. If that doesn’t speak to the quality of gameplay here, I don’t know what else can.

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With the same sigh I opened this critique with, I must reiterate that I find Deus Ex: Mankind Divided a somewhat disappointing game. I do still love it, have invested 60-80 hours in it, and will most definitely play it several more times to fully master each of its pillars of gameplay. But in regards to its stellar predecessor Human Revolution, I can’t even pretend to act as if this game is better. Human Revolution is superior in almost every way, but I still give Mankind Divided a hearty recommendation.

If you played Human Revolution and liked it, Mankind Divided will give you all those same feelings of enjoyment. Even if you didn’t like Human Revolution, but were intrigued by it, Mankind Divided streamlines its controls so well that it’s easy to get onboard with.

With Eidos Montreal being so quick to swap major characters, conflicts and entities for new ones in Mankind Divided, I can only remain hopeful that they know what they’re doing for future sequels. And no matter how they turn out, I’m sure I’ll still play the hell out of them.

We Happy (pre)Few (see what I did there?)

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I consider Fallout 3 one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. In my all-time top 10 for sure — maybe even top 5.

However the first time I played Fallout 3, I hated it.

(I know what you’re thinking, this is supposed to be a We Happy Few preview. I’ll get to it, just let me make my point first)

I had never played a Fallout before, so I only kind of sort of knew what I was getting into. I knew it was an open-world post-apocalyptic shooter with RPG elements, but that’s about it.

I eased through the lengthy tutorial section in the vault with no problems. That served as an effective (and slightly drawn-out) way to get me comfortable with Fallout 3’s controls, characters and story.

And then I stepped out of the vault.

I had no clue what to do. I wandered the wasteland and fought difficult battles against raiders. When I entered buildings I expected some sort of payoff, quest or equipment in them. Instead I found regular household items I kept picking up because I didn’t know any better. Early on I became overencumbered regularly from picking up too much stuff. I didn’t know what I needed, what was junk and how to decipher all of it. After just a few hours, I gave up. I didn’t like Fallout 3 because I didn’t realize it wasn’t doing what I thought it was going to do. I was so used to having the training wheels on from other games where everything I picked up served some sort of function, and weapons and armor lasted forever. I just didn’t get Fallout 3.

A couple years later I tried it again, and boy am I glad I did. With some extra maturity and genre gaming under my belt, I finally understood what Fallout 3 was and ended up adoring it. I played the main game and bought each expansion pack. I spent 100+ hours with it and enjoyed most of it. Except Mothership Zeta. What’s up with that copy/pasted corridor crawl, Bethesda? Huh?

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I recently downloaded the Xbox One 45-minute Alpha preview of We Happy Few. I spent all of the 45 minutes I was allowed with it, and came away with many of the same feelings I had after I tried Fallout 3 for the first time.

I realize We Happy Few is a ways off, and the version I tried outright said it was Alpha and might not work at all, so the developers have work to do before it hits shelves. Consider that a disclaimer of sorts as I continue on with my thoughts.

We Happy Few is a retrofuturistic (the developers’ words, not mine) alternate 1960s England in which much of the population takes a pill called Joy to keep themselves deliriously upbeat.

Right off the bat We Happy Few struck me (stay with me on this) as Brave New World meets Austin Powers meets Bioshock. It sounds bizarre, but it worked for me.

In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian-future novel, people take a drug called Soma that puts them in coma-like pleasure states. Although We Happy Few’s Joy keeps people active, the upbeat feeling after taking it is noticeable to the public. Both drugs seem to have a similar purpose for each title.

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As the preview opened, I controlled a man who works for a media censorship affiliation. His task is to read newspaper articles and decide whether they’re positive enough to run publicly or so negative they need to be blacked out of print. Minutes in, he opens his Joy bottle and I was given the choice to take it. I chose not to. Shortly after, a coworker comes in and invites him to an office piñata party. She sees his discarded Joy tablet on the carpet and immediately asks if he’s been taking. The suspicion was on. I lied to her, and she decided to swallow his discarded pill herself.

After checking more articles I left the office and proceeded to the party. On the way I saw a security officer interrogating a fellow coworker in his office about if he’d taken his Joy or not. Displeased with his answer, the guard shoved the coworker into a wall and injected him with Joy to make sure he was taking.

I backed away from the window in horror and proceeded to the party.

During the party my character began hallucinating, and it was immediately apparent to the small crowd that he was suffering some effects of not taking his Joy. Guards were alerted, I ran away and was chased to the end of a sewer alley.

This is where the preview went from tightly-controlled and intriguing to kind of a mess.

 

The screen blacked out, and I woke up in some kind of safehouse. I’m guessing due to the Alpha-ness of We Happy Few the segment I had just played and the continuation into the safehouse had nothing to do with each other. They were probably just stitched together for continuity’s sake.

This is also where the game suddenly became overloaded with things. Much like Fallout 3, I still wasn’t sure what We Happy Few was trying to be. And having played all the 45 minutes of its demo, I actually still don’t know what it’s trying to be.

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Upon waking up in the safehouse, here’s what We Happy Few unloaded on me:

Main quest (expected)

Side Quests (ok, that’s fine)

Crafting (ugh)

Different clothes for disguises (ok)

Limited-use melee weapons (Not my fave, but I can buy it)

Health bar (obviously)

Stamina bar (pretty standard)

Hunger gauge (…ok?)

Thirst gauge (…uh wha?)

Sleep gauge (seriously?)

That felt like a lot of stuff to take in at once. So not only do I have to watch my health, which I’m used to in games, I have to keep an eye on my hunger, thirst and make sure I sleep for proper stamina, too? And I have thirst-specific and hunger-specific items in the inventory to mull through to refill those gauges.

Damn, We Happy Few, are you sure you don’t want to change your name to “Your Mom: The Game” before you launch?

I pressed on. I begrudgingly crafted a lockpick from pieces of metal to open a drawer to get a jimmy bar to open the manhole to climb out of my safehouse.

I was met with city blocks of what appeared to be some kind of English ghetto. Houses were abandoned, homeless-looking people trudged up and down the streets, and grass had grown high in many lots.

We Happy Few hadn’t really told me how to interact with NPCs, so I approached them with caution. Some made rude comments, some said nothing and one guy asked me for food poison relief pills … which I actually had, for some reason. I walked up to three violent youths beating a water pump with sticks. A side quest immediately dropped telling me to fix the pump with a repair kit. I had to find duct tape and metal pieces to craft the repair kit, so I spent (I’m only partly joking here) almost the entire rest of the demo searching houses for fucking duct tape.

I eventually found some, crafted the repair kit and completed the quest. However, as soon as I repaired it, the violent youths began attacking me. I wasn’t sure why, and the game never made it clear. Maybe they just really like being dehydrated?

I let them fight among themselves and then finished them off with some punches.

I needed more duct tape for another repair kit for the bridge I was supposed to cross, so I spent a long time looking for duct tape again. On second thought they should rename it “Your Mom: The Game: aka Duct Tape Hunting Simulator 2016.”

On one hand, I admire games that don’t give me a concrete waypoint to pinpoint every little objective because I like exploring rather than following a linear, cookie-cutter path to victory. On the other hand, I don’t like walking around a big, mazy section of city looking for duct tape for 20 minutes straight. Especially when some NPCs decide to fight me for no better reason than walking too close to them.

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After running in circles (and sleeping twice because the Great Duct Tape Hunt of 2016 took two in-game days!) I found the duct tape and walked toward the bridge to fix it.

 

YOUR TIME IS UP The game said as it ejected me out to the start menu.

 

Well, damn. That’s that, I guess.

I like some of the ideas We Happy Few is rolling with. I like the Joy emphasis, the art design, the voice acting and the general premise and time period.

What I don’t like is how much crap I have to juggle at once just to play the game. I don’t want to constantly be checking my health, hunger, thirst and sleep meters so I can eat, drink and sleep. Those are major boring roadblocks in a game I’m otherwise trying to enjoy playing.

On top of that, the game’s UI and menu system could go for a major overhaul. There’s no real-time weapon/item wheel (that I saw) so every time the game said “You’re dying of thirst” I had to pause the game, tab over to the inventory and find a drink to sip on. If that were mapped to a single button it’d be a lot less cumbersome.

Some more red flags shot up when I visited the developer’s (Compulsion Games) website. It claims We Happy Few is a procedurally generated world and once the player dies – that’s it. They respawn as a new character living a new story in a new area.

So maybe the safehouse is standard, but every time I die I climb out of it into a different city hub? I’m not sure.

The website also boasts that We Happy Few contains “a mature story” with “flawed and not particularly heroic” characters. I’m all for that, but I find more often than not when a game flat out tells me it has a mature story, usually it doesn’t. “Mature” in video game-development speak usually translates to blood and titties. I remain open though, because I love a good mature story … almost as much as I love blood and titties.

I’m wondering how We Happy Few is going to tell a coherent, mature story when players are switching between new protagonists every time they die, though. ZombiU had the same feature, but I didn’t play more than a couple hours of it, so that tells you how invested I was in its storytelling.

I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about We Happy Few. I can only hope that by the time it comes out I’ll experience the same thing I did with Fallout 3. Maybe because I scratched my head through my first time with it and walked away somewhat puzzled, it’ll set me up for understanding what the game is really trying to do later, so I can properly appreciate it once the final version is out.

Writing Therapy: Post-Vacation Slump

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I’ve always considered myself lucky to have never been diagnosed with depression. Although I’m speculating, it seems like people without it seem to be in the minority nowadays. It’s a rare occasion when I get sad. Because of that, I find myself cherishing the times I am. That’s not to make light of those with depression or envy them. I couldn’t imagine dealing with my mind and body battling it out on a daily basis so vigorously that simply getting out of bed and performing ordinary tasks prove challenging. I have never experienced it, and am thankful for it. With that out of the way, consider the rest of the text trivial in my sporadic sorrow.

I recently returned from a trip to Seattle. It was only my second time in the city, and I hail from the Midwest – halfway across the country. The first time I visited Seattle, sightseeing and hitting tourist spots was the main faire. This time around, the trip was almost entirely about seeing people and rarely about doing things. I was more than happy to simply be along for the ride and in the presence of far-off friends than participating in tourist stunts.

That explains why the trip’s most satisfying night involved lying on a friend’s living room floor until 3am and talking about who we were 10 years ago versus who we are now. I’ll add that no alcohol was involved. Just sitting and deep diving on the past. I was ecstatic to pass up an elevator ride in the Space Needle or an underground tour for a night such as that.

Out of the generous handful of people I spent time with in Seattle, all but one were friends I formed over Twitter. To be honest, I can’t even remember what sparked a single friendship with any of them individually – except video games. That’s the one thing we all have in common. These people welcomed me into their lives, even sharing space in their apartments to let me sleep. Toward the end of the trip I kept telling people it was everything I could’ve asked for and more. Like I said, the trip was about seeing people. And see them, I did.

I knew when I left Seattle, occasional waves of sadness would sweep over me. The first one hit as I waited in the security line at the Seattle airport. A friendly TSA agent complimented my shoes, and I thanked him as tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t look him in the face.

After I passed security and sat at my gate, the waterworks really started. I removed my glasses and thrust my head into my hands. I cried and wiped my bloodshot eyes and nose continually. After a while, I calmed down and walked the busy terminal to clear my thoughts. My stomach ached, but I didn’t feel like eating.

As I’ve been back in the Midwest for a few days now, I’ve been wondering about my answer to the question people asked about how the trip was going. Suddenly it didn’t seem like the trip was so great after all. I slowly realized how much I wanted to spend time having more meaningful conversations with those I met with in Seattle. Maybe just being along for the ride wasn’t enough, after all. Maybe the problem is my previous 3am living room story happened on my final night. Perhaps if that’d happened on night one, I would’ve been more susceptible to those conversations. More eager to start them. There’s something to be said for being able to fall right back into place and shoot the shit with someone you haven’t seen in two years, but it’s another to take advantage of the situation and use that time for more important discussion. I stumbled on the latter.

At the time I thought everything was lovely, but now I can think of 50 more questions I want to ask people I hung out with. And they’re not the kinds of questions I can just text message to someone. They’re the kinds of questions I want to sit down and ask face-to-face. Who knows when that’ll happen. In two years? Five years?

I shouldn’t beat myself up over this stuff, but here we are. The grass is always greener, eh?

Thoughts such as those have been contributing to my recent bout of sadness. A post-vacation slump, if you will. I hate to be the person who complains after going on vacation, because I count my lucky stars I was able to go in the first place, but here I am.

Because I don’t experience sadness often, I tend to revel in it. Where some people might watch happy movies or spend time with close friends to pull them out of the sadness well — I dive in.

I started a new game in Silent Hill 2 the other night – my favorite game and also the most depressing game I’ve ever played.

If I drive anywhere, I tend to take the long way home and crank up emo music I listened to 10 years ago. Of course, I sing at the top of my lungs until my throat feels like a fireball. Just like high school all over again.

It’s not all bad, though. Usually when I return from a trip, I channel the busy energy of seeing people and try to do something to better myself instead of sit on the couch all day in sadness. I haven’t had alcohol in days, and I’m gonna try my best only to drink on special occasions. We’ll see how long I stick to that. (I’m guessing about a week).

I’m also renewing my commitment to working out. Although I was going to the gym for cardio about every other day before my trip, I’ve now been every single day since returning, and I even went twice today. Unheard of. And I’m only drinking water and tea at the moment. Good for me, I guess. Maybe I can finally lose these extra pounds that have been sticking around for the past year?

I’m not sure for whom I’m doing all this, though. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m eating better and working out for my own benefit. I feel like I’m doing it to impress people 1,600 miles away who have no idea I’m doing it. Maybe I’m honoring their presence and acceptance of me in their lives and trying to do right by them for it. I don’t know.

Consider this a writing therapy session to gather my thoughts about how I feel after a trip across the country. Now I’m off to go watch Closer – one of my favorite (sad) movies and probably cry during it. I’m not sad often, so I have to make the most of it, remember?

Lost in Sevastopol

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In 2014, a new entry in the Alien universe gave us the most faithful and well developed sequel since 1979’s original Alien. No, it wasn’t a film. It was a video game. Developer Creative Assembly painstakingly emulated the Alien experience in … Continue reading

Mirror’s Edge’s Lose-Lose Scenario

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I received a review copy of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst four days before it released on store shelves. I’ve written a full review, but as of this writing, I don’t know when it’ll be published. Consider that my disclaimer, and also my reason for this piece. Also consider that I’m a fan of the first game, but I still recognize its faults.

However much a fan I am, I approached Catalyst with worry because I knew it might be an awful sequel that could potentially tarnish my love for it and squelch any chance we have at potentially getting a Mirror’s Edge 3 – even if, like Catalyst, that third game takes 8 years to get here. I don’t want to see Mirror’s Edge become a yearly release, but I don’t want the series to die with Catalyst either.

I consider the video-game space extremely lucky at all to even have a new Mirror’s Edge. The first game was much more of a great idea and an excellent practice of visual design than a well-executed game. It’s perhaps the first (correct me if I’m wrong) first-person parkour platformer. I’ve heard several people make comparisons to Prince of Persia, and that’s not far off except Mirror’s Edge is in first-person and features a futuristic city landscape – like if Apple and IKEA teamed up to build a whole city.

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Mirror’s Edge 1 told the story of Faith, a runner and information courier in a dystopian city. The visual design and running mechanics are what drew me to it and caused me to fall in love. However, the gameplay was occasionally a mess. Developer DICE included combat and optional use of guns, which slowed down the game’s goal momentum and provided unnecessary difficulty spikes. Combat in Mirror’s Edge was pretty universally panned.

Mirror’s Edge also featured a handful of platforming scenarios that were obtuse and difficult. I fell off rooftops to my death dozens of times. Between some bad platforming and the bad combat, I remember several sessions I played where I nearly tested how controller-resistant my apartment walls were.

I loved the idea and visual design of Mirror’s Edge, but I wanted to love it more. So when Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst finally came 8 years later, I knew it would be interesting to see where I landed on it – completely untainted because I hadn’t been exposed to any review impressions of the game yet. That’s one weird side note of getting review copies – your opinion forms without the musty smell of other game reviews stacking up before you play it.

I finished Catalyst and liked it an awful lot. What impressed me the most was how DICE seemed to take things everyone hated about he first game and flaunt how they could indeed make them better rather than cut them out completely. When DICE first showed the game off, its first trailer featured two of the worst aspects of the first game – combat and interior environments.

Great, I thought. Here they are trying to shoehorn in bad stuff from the first game again. I guess they haven’t learned their lessons.

However, when I finished the game, which does indeed feature a smattering of indoor environments and occasional combat, I liked all of those bits. The indoor areas are big enough to feel open and not like you’re running down tiny hallways. And the combat is good. Not great or amazing, but good.

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As I’ve been skimming reviews for Catalyst I see a lot of people calling out how hard and awkward the combat is. I don’t know if I’m just really good at the game or if I got lucky in my encounters or what, but I rarely – rarely – found the combat to be hard.

The first fix is that Faith’s use of guns is taken out of the equation entirely. And only one of the four enemy types Faith fights uses them. Because Faith has no guns, she has a light attack, a strong attack (which causes the enemy to stumble) and a dodge move. Press Dodge in conjunction with the left stick and Faith will dash that direction – kind of like in Titanfall.

Catalyst features an upgrade menu and most of the upgrades available in it are for combat use. They either make Faith do more damage to enemies, give her a pulse from her glove to disorient enemies, give her a move that pulls the enemy toward her (almost like a dance move) to shove them out of the way and expose his or her back, or they give her more health.

I’m the kind of gamer who saves up upgrade points until I feel like I need to use them to survive a situation. I rarely felt overpowered in Catalyst, so at some point when I had about 8 points available I gave in and bought a bunch of combat upgrades. Maybe this is why combat was easier for me than other people who reviewed the game? Maybe no one else bought the upgrades? I obviously can’t speak for someone else’s expertise on the game, but I personally never found the combat awkward or difficult.

I often made quick work of groups of enemies who were set up for intense fights. In one late level Faith turns down a dead-end hallway right into a group of about 8 enemies and immediately panics and calls her handler to open an elevator door nearby. Funny thing is, the game meant for me to turn and run into a nearby large lobby to fight all the enemies in a bigger, open space. Instead, I took them all out in the tiny hallway in a matter of seconds in one try. I laughed when Faith got back to the lobby and the game, not realizing I’d knocked out all the enemies seconds ago, made Faith do another panicked voiceover asking her handler to hurry with the door. Hah.

So, yeah, I don’t know what all the people playing this game are complaining about. Or maybe, like I said, I’m just better at it. After all, I don’t like the Dark Souls games because I’m bad it their combat. To each their own.

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The other thing I keep seeing people complain about is Catalyst’s new open-world design. This brings me to my biggest damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.

The first Mirror’s Edge was all segmented missions, separated by cartoony cutscenes. Because the game’s main focus was on running and movement, the linear missions sometimes negated that quality. When I found out Catalyst would be open-world, I was elated. It just made sense. Now I could spend more time doing what the game does best — running and climbing around the environment — and not just for a mission’s sake.

I’ve seen reviewers complain that because Catalyst is open-world, it features too many side-things to do.

There are a lot of activities in the environment, that’s totally true — time trial dashes, multiple kinds of delivery missions, security antennae sabotaging, random items (security chips, information cloud leaks) to stop and pick up. There’s no shortage of stuff to keep Faith busy. And, honestly, the open-worldness does seem pretty well modeled after several other (successful) open-world games – Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs, Batman.

What I want to point out here is that all of that side stuff is optional. Normally (like I did in Watch Dogs) I would complain about a game being packed with so much pointless stuff to do, but because Mirror’s Edge maintains its identity quite strongly through its parkour gameplay and unique visual design, I don’t mind it. I felt like I was playing elements of other games, but never mistaking it for another game, if that makes sense. And all the side missions serve only to give Faith extra XP, which she can use for upgrades. In a game like Watch Dogs, several side quests awarded me with cars or guns that I didn’t want and never used.

The other side of the coin here is – if Mirror’s Edge had been open-world and none of those side quests had existed, people would’ve complained that the world were too open with nothing to do. Remember Mafia 2? That was an open-world game with no point in the open world other than to make players drive from one linear mission to the next to pad the game length out. And people came down hard on the developer’s decision to make it open-world.

The other option was for DICE to make Catalyst linear like the first game. Guess what would’ve happened if they did that? People would complain that it’s too short and linear with nothing to do outside the missions.

See what I mean? Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

If you want a linear Mirror’s Edge, go play the first one again because honestly the mechanics haven’t changed all that much. And maybe if you play the first one again you’ll realize your love for it is mostly nostalgia-based and you’ll discover that Catalyst is a bigger step forward than you originally thought.