Some video games I played during my paternity leave
and some ruminations on subscription-based media services
I’ve recently been blessed with a second child and have been enjoying the rare pleasure of guilt-free multi hour gaming sessions with a freshly-brewed nuggetino plopped in a Boppy beside me. I wanted to do a little write-up on some of the games I’ve enjoyed, and the manner in which I’ve enjoyed them, during this placid time before I get back to work.
Microsoft is onto something with Game Pass
All of my gaming these days is done on an Xbox Series S via the insane selection of Microsoft Game Pass. For me this is somewhat ironic, because I have cooled on subscription models for other types of media.
Take movies for example: On Netflix, I found we’d often watch pleasant but forgettable films because we were landlocked to a service that we felt like it was a waste of money to leave the walls of. Netflix is constantly factory-modeling out a conveyer belt of new content that “trends” for a week but doesn’t seem to have any lasting cultural resonance. When I log on now for example, I see this movie being pushed called Skater Girl, and while I’m sure it’s a fine film, the description feels so “of the moment” of stories are being across multiple contemporary films that I feel like I can already visualize its story beats before even watching a trailer. Its acquisition by Netflix reeks of a cynical boardroom decision of “based on social media, this what the people want!”, and I feel like this mindset makes a lot of the risk-adverse “gets” by these streaming companies feel forgettable a week or so after you’ve watched them.
Instead, I find I engage with movies a lot more actively when I find a director or writer I like (Recently: Sofia Coppola, Nicole Holofcener, The Duplass Brothers) and try to 100% their work on Letterboxd, even if that means occasionally dropping $3.99 for a rental outside of a my preferred subscription services’ walled garden. This aspect of actively curating which films I want to see instead of passively picking what’s new makes watching film a lot richer even for a dummy like me, because I can try to appreciate the nuances of a directors’ trademarks over their entire career, and this wouldn’t be possible strictly adhering to only one or two subscription services for movies.
In my mind, video games are more befitting a subscription model than movies in that they need to be a better value for my time then my money. Although I cringe to admit it, I’ve been playing games for so long that if the gamefeel (yuck) feels poor or samey I don’t want to waste 10 to 25 to a 100 hours on it. Even if I buy a game that’s seemingly up my alley, I sometimes won’t know for sure if something will resonate with me until I’ve played a game for an hour or so. If I’ve paid $60 bucks for a game in this scenario, I may feel compelled to see something crummy to its conclusion, wasting my time to justify not wasting my money.
Xbox Game Pass removes this value judgement and for its $15/month entry fee, I treat the service like a decadent trip to a Brazilian Steakhouse. A bite of flank here—a couple of ribs there—a mouthful of pork chop with mint for my troubles—it’s all premium meat, baby and I’m feastin’. Who cares if I have a hodgepodge of plates stacking up behind me with enough random scraps of unfinished meat to process an entire 4th of July BBQ of of hot dogs—I paid my entry fee—I can keep that green puck up for as long for whatever games I like, and move on from a game as soon as it offends my sensibilities in even the slightest manner.
And the quality of games in the service is high! I know Microsoft is a big company, but the clip in which they are acquiring in house studios and games for this service feels like they are pissing capital in a way that is borderline unsustainable. Being an early adopter of Game Pass reminds me of being an early adopter of Uber, leeching off of venture capital with subsidized, 30 dollar drunken-rides home from D.C. Whereas previously I’d go on a veritable Odyssey of Metro rides—constantly hopping off trains along the way to covertly pee in the clandestine corners of certain stops—this wonderous service came into being that let me get home in a much easier way. Uber felt like an unsustainable steal at the time because it was, and they’ve since raised their prices once they crowded out the existing Taxi market. Microsoft Game Pass seems like a similarly good value that it’s a good time to be a member of, as they are desperately trying to take a generational bite out of Sony and Nintendo’s market share.
Anyways, given that whole shrill-laden preamble, I probably tried and dropped about 10 games over the course of the last 5 weeks, but here are some I’d wholeheartedly recommend:
A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019)
A lot of big cinematic games that consume a lot of mind space in the industry (and specialized by Sony Studios specifically) often leave me cold. While I’m typically blown away by the premises and performances of games like God of War or The Last Of Us on paper, when I actually get to physical act of playing those games, the mechanics of them bore or annoy me. Like, God Of War’s “reluctant fatherhood” arc seemed very intriguing, but when Big Burly Bleach Boi Kratos is so buff he moves like a Howitzer tank, and you are constantly getting spears in the back trying to 5 point turn the fucker around to retaliate, you lose me as a guy playing a video game. I shouldn’t have trouble parallel parking my demigod.
A Plague Tale: Innocence, probably due to budgetary constraints, eschews the need for puddle-deep hand-to-hand combat entirely and acts as a story driven game with very basic stealth mechanics and puzzles. You control a pair of two kids too weak to ever win a fight 1 on 1, and if you get caught, you basically take a sword to the chest and reload your save. This is a boon for folks like me that don’t want to suffer a just-fine combat system just to see if a games can actually tell a story worth a damn.
And this one seems like it can! A Plague Tale: Innocence tells an medieval-era story in France amid the backdrop of an Eldridge-horror feeling plague spread by tsunami’s of rats. The game starts off with the intriguing central premise where two kids—Amicia and Hugo— have their noble family murdered by the Inquisition as they hunt down Hugo due to some mysterious linkage between him and the plague’s origins. You have to travel a rat-infested French countryside, escaping the rats and the Inquisition along the way, chasing leads to find out what makes your family’s bloodline so special.
The underlying comedy of this game, which is perhaps unintentional, is the degree in which these two privileged noble kids have a such a terrible go at things and are put into comically more precarious and disgusting situations. In one chapter, you find yourself traversing a corpses-laden battlefield, and the next, they decide: “you know what would be more tragic? A field of PIG corpses”. It’s all gross as hell, but I enjoy the way the games finds a way to continually raise the stakes and find more reasons to make the ol Plague Rat printer go brrr.
This incidental comedy is enhanced by the voice over. While I always think video game voice acting in native-English is typically cringe inducing, this game developed in France with French Voice actors doing English VO, so everything sounds very cultured to my American scum ears. It makes it all the funnier when everyone is dropping “merci” and “monsieur” while a proper rat orgy hisses on in the background.
Much like the Tolkienization of fantasy made certain tropes pertaining to elves and dwarves feel overwrought, it’s refreshing to play a game in the intriguing setting of “school of magic” that doesn’t seem overly married to tropes set up by Rowling. Ikenfell delivers on the promise of this setting by telling a twisty tale following a band of imperfect witches trying to track down a classmate who is seemingly trying to destroy the school and had previously wronged them in different, devastating interpersonal ways.
My favorite games these days are that go to the well on a singularly great gameplay mechanic without wasting your time on needless bloat, which is a design philosophy Ikenfell shares. Ikenfell is one of the few games to take a stab at the Mario RPG active combat formula and make it work with real stakes, where you must instinctively “tap” at the right times during attacks to either maximize the damage you are taking or minimize the damage you are receiving. Ikenfell actually makes this rhythm mechanic rather life and death though, as missing the “sweet” spots can greatly change the tide of battle or nearly knock out your character, requiring you to read execute to proceed. Since the game is constantly granting your party new attacks, as well as providing a good variety on its enemy types every chapter, Ikenfell provided a good challenge without overstaying its welcome.
The Wild At Heart (2021)
This is one of those games that best illustrates the value of Xbox Game Pass, because I would have hard-passed The Wild At Heart based on the trailer alone. Something about artstyle of the characters and the overplayed 80’s/The Goonies aesthetic is very trite on its face.
There is something about the actual playing of this game I find very meditative, though. You play as two kids that have run away from their abusive homes and seek refuge in a magically-hidden away portion of the woods protected by other social outcasts that have taken up a brotherhood called the Greenshields. As the newest member’s of the order, you command strike teams of different-talented forest sprites to undo an encroaching, ancient evil that threatens the Greenshields and the forest itself.
This game rips mechanics from Luigi’s Mansion and Pikmin by giving you both a vacuum and an army of minions to explore an overworld, solve environmental puzzles, and engage in light strategic combat. Aping Nintendo mechanics so blatantly always comes with a risk of feeling like a poor facsimile, but I feel like this game hits a Nintendo-esque sweet spot wherein the puzzles and combat are just difficult enough to feel engaging and satisfying without being overly taxing.
It’s all an excellent excuse to take in a Tycho-reminiscent ambient soundtrack that makes the act of exploring the games hand-painted environments very pleasant and meditative. It’s been a very serene game to decompress with for an hour or so before bedtime, solving a couple of puzzles and soaking in the vibes.
Words with Friends 2 (2012)
This obviously isn’t on Xbox Game Pass, but I’d be lying if it didn’t spill a little typeface on it.
Listen, I don’t have much to say about Words with Friends, because we all had like 10 active games on it with friends the year or so after we graduated college before purging it from our memories entirely. For whatever reason, my wife and I picked this up again as a way to pass the time in the hospital, as well as wake up our brains during late-night feedings, and I’m sure once I go back to work it will again be relegated to the App Store backbench.
What’s kind of bizarre about Words with Friends in 2021 is how much they’ve aped other industry trends to stay relevant and monetize the game. Much like Rocket League or Fortnite, there is a now a Words with Friends Season Pass where you can pay real money to earn cosmetics like exclusive “tile styles” (e.g, your scrabble tiles are now plaid) or emotes to send once you play a word (e.g, sending a cool dude with sunglasses when I play “sex” on both a triple letter and triple word bonus and somehow effortlessly get like 80 points). While I mock this, I actually fucking bought the current one at 3am one night trying to stay awake, because being on Paternity Leave untethers you from reality and in such a fragile state, and I decided that that an Owl lifting a barbell emote would be an unrecoverable burn worthy of 9.99 USD.
They added also added Mortal Kombat style single player campaign in which you compete a ladder of increasingly difficult AI’s, but instead of bloodthirsty and mystical Kung Fu masters, you square off an increasingly stronger roster of…..dads making bad puns? There is an uncanny valley aspect to all of it that deeply funny to me for a reasons I can’t articulate.