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The Walking Dead won’t ask much from you, technically. There really aren’t any puzzles. The controls are easy to pick up, and any action is limited to quick time events. It won’t ask you to choose between difficulty levels, or offer you a hardcore mode. It’s not hard.

The Walking Dead will ask you for your soul. It’ll ask how much value you place on a human life, and if that value can be ripped away. You’ll be given the powers of life and death, in some cases, and in other encounters that power will be stripped from you without ceremony. You’ll see monsters, and maybe you’ll be one. It’s debilitating.

Split up into episodes, Telltale has produced a powerful piece of sequential storytelling. Taken as a whole? It’s a keystone, a story lodged permanently both in my brain and that of the greater games consciousness.

The Walking Dead’s structure might not offer as many tentacles as a Mass Effect or KOTOR. You’ll see the same dialogue options, that conversation as gameplay (sans those pesky, binary morality systems), but with the heft of a tailored narrative. In a game like Mass Effect, you feel like the center of gravity, like you have the power to influence the arc of every character around you—and the universe itself. But in The Walking Dead, as just one desperate survivor among many, it almost feels like other players are clicking through their own dialogue options behind each character. Systems spin in conjunction with—and often splinter against—your own. The story finds the same major beats each time, but the path is twisted and personal.

One of the reasons these characters feel so much like real people is the superb writing. Voices and delivery are thick with personality, and each one is drawn bold  without sliding into archetype. Kenny is a brash, stubborn family man. Lilly, wracked with insecurity, tries to stay strong and keep everyone equal. Clementine is sweet with a spine of steel.

And Lee, the player character, is who you want him to be. He’s defined by his past just enough to give you a framework to which you bolt your own moralities and priorities. There’s plenty of room to see yourself reflected in his words, his actions, and the marks he leaves on what’s left of the world.

The presentation gives the game’s heart a perfect skin. Cel-shaded graphics call back to the comics and offer a bold, vibrant vision of the post-apocalypse. Settings are decorated with little details and given clear boundaries. The voice acting is incredible, and the remaining sound design subtly supports each scene—at its most effective when it empties out the world and leaves you with silence.

Like I said at the start: you won’t be challenged by the mechanics. It plays pretty much like a point-and-click adventure. If this bothers you, try and look past it. Play it for the narrative. This isn’t an experience you should skip.

If you care even slightly about story in games, you should play The Walking Dead. You should think about what it asks of you. And you should take a part of it away when you’re done.

Somehow, this is the first time I’ve played through Ico. Blind spots.

It’s kind of beautiful. Escort quests are notoriously bad. They feel tacked on, don’t mesh well with other mechanics. But in Ico, escort is the core mechanic. Yorda serves as your health bar, your key, your purpose.

This is reinforced in the hand-holding. That physical connection not only makes it easy to direct her, but heightens the emotional. It has texture.

Combat is a skeleton of an afterthought, which is fine. It makes the few upgrades you find, which add nothing of the mechanics or style, still feel monumental.

Environments are spectacular. It reminded me of Dark Souls, exploring ancient castles and revealing secret paths, without the hanging sense of dread and stiff-backbone caution. A sense of discovery. The scale of the castle when you first emerge from the innards and out onto one of the massive walkways.

The ending is satisfying, a resolution and a soft, chewy center of potential. I’m looking forward to Shadow of the Colossus next.

I had a little fun with the Guild Wars 2 beta this weekend, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to play around with video recording. I’ve used FRAPS a few times before, and it’s always incredibly easy, but when it came time to upload to Youtube I could never find the right settings so it wouldn’t look like garbage.

Finally I took the time to figure it out! Turns out Sony Vegas was a little easier to work with than Adobe Premiere, and after a few hours of experimentation I think I’ve got something that looks pretty crisp at 1080p.

I’ll probably do more of this in the future, and it might be fun to try livestreaming too. We’ll see!

Progress! I have a few trophies up in my Hall now and it motivates me just enough to keep chasing them. Fellowship and Devotion are still the only platforms I’ve activated (’til I finish up the Ebon Vanguard missions) and they’re starting to fill up. My flamingo hit 20, I delved far enough into Factions to capture the Black Moa, and I managed to get a Stolen Sunspear Armor to upgrade Koss. And it turns out I had 18 different miniatures lying around.

With my new fire build I feel like I can keep up the momentum, too. AOE hits harder than it did with earth, and I dropped Ranger and took Monk as a secondary for a little just-in-case healing and so I can capture a few Monk skills to kit out my heroes so they aren’t dead weight.

I realized this after crawling through a few forums over the weekend: heroes are far less effective than henchmen if you don’t have them kitted out. I assumed (for whatever reason) that heroes would be better by default because you have control over their build. But what if someone with ZERO knowledge of the class is setting up the build?

And that’s why I was taking such a terrible beating with a party full of heroes. I have very few elite skills right now, so most of my friends were woefully under powered. I’ve switched over to a team of all henchmen for now, at least until I can play around and capture a few vital skills for each class. Encounters feel much more manageable now, and it’s nice to actually make some headway in Eye of the North.

My approach to the Hall of Monuments has been pretty scattershot OCD so far, but I think I’ve narrowed down my next few goals:

  • Finish the Eye of the North campaign to fully unlock the Hall.
  • More Stolen Sunspear Armor for Nightfall heroes.
  • Finish Factions campaign and work on Kurzick stuff.

If I concentrate on those I should be able to keep my brain intact and functional. Looking at the beta calculator is pretty intimidating right now, especially when I scroll through the massive list of titles. I don’t think I have the willpower to do much in Hard mode or shoot for all the Master’s rewards in missions, but I should be able to hit 30/50 without them.

I’m sorely tempted to pre-purchase Guild Wars 2 so I can hop in for the beta next weekend, but at the same time… shouldn’t I just keep working on the first one? I can’t decide.

Diablo 3’s received only neglect in the last few days. After hitting 37 with my barbarian I totally ran out of steam just before the Butcher in nightmare mode. I have a hard time playing through the same content, following the same story for a second time (and a third and a fourth if I persevere to inferno mode). I think for now I’ll just be playing when I have friends online. Three of us created hardcore demon hunters and had some fun for a little while over the weekend, rapid-firing our way through the cathedral catacombs. Hardcore definitely adds an edge to each encounter, especially considering the buffed difficulty playing with others.

Guild Wars 2 looks spectacular. Between articles on the ArenaNet blog and detailed video coverage from the beta weekends, I think I’m coming close to permanent Guild Wars retina burn. And yet somehow it never occurred to me before this weekend to go back to the original.

I played Guild Wars just after Factions came out, eventually quit, and then bought the trilogy during a Steam sale sometime in the last year. I didn’t dive in very far the second time, fluctuating wildly between MMO love and hate, and wasn’t jazzed about starting a new account as I’d forgotten all the information from my first.

But it’s time go back, and there’s one driving force behind my renewed (entirely new?) obsession: the Hall of Monuments. Have you seen the beta calculator? I opened it up a month or two, purely out of curiosity, and was immediately overwhelmed. Statues? What are these titles for? I didn’t even know the first thing about heroes, only having played a few hours of Nightfall. I couldn’t process any of it.

Then I looked at the rewards.

Glorious titles and decorative gear and miniature non-combat pets and I realized that, despite my total lack of current Guild Wars knowledge, I couldn’t be happy going into the sequel without all that shiny crap that has zero actual value. I can’t help it—I’m a sucker for the stuff.

It’s tough, but I’m starting from scratch. I have two 20s on my old account, but I can’t remember anything about my progress or how to play the classes (warrior and monk). Besides, that account doesn’t have access to Nightfall. I’m just thankful it’s so old. I’d created six characters, and each of them had five years worth of birthday gifts sitting in their inventories when I recovered the account. An easy start to a miniature collection.

I’m playing as an elementalist, a class I’ve never really touched before, so I’m hoping even the content I saw years ago will feel fresh. This won’t be a problem for a while, as I’m starting with the Nightfall campaign (which I haven’t seen most of) and jumping from that into Eye of the North so I can start seeing those statues go up as soon as possible.

So far, I’ve just made it to the Eye and unlocked the Fellowship path, and I’m going to try and get Hero armor for a few of my Nightfall heroes to start getting a few statues down. I tried running the Dajkah Inlet challenge missions a few times this morning and realized I really needed to upgrade to max armor and spend some time rethinking my build. I died too easily! I need practice controlling heroes, too.

Right now I’m thinking about switching over to fire build, but we’ll see how things go with the new armor. I want to make sure I have a good handle on things before tackling the Eye campaign proper.

I’ve gone back to Dark Souls, cautious and wide-eyed at first but soon fearless, throwing myself off the brink and into death with enthusiasm. I’m not thrilled when death finds me, of course, but the gleeful “YOU DIED” on my screen reads less like a brick wall than when I first saw it five months ago.

Now it’s a challenge.

The sense of discovery brought me back, the same compulsive desire to see and consume that kept me tromping through Skyrim for ~100 hours. I didn’t know much about Dark Souls when I first started playing; I didn’t know what was just out of sight. My view was trumped by the Capra Demon’s bum rush and the menace of invisible ghosts. So I gave up.

A few weeks ago I read a few articles about the game, love letters from professional critics and nondescript names alike. The way they went on about the world I knew I was missing something.

But part of my problem is that I’ve never really enjoyed the challenge of games. They’re a way for me to unwind and release the pressures of life I already live with, not a way to frustrate me or add to that stress. The pull of this fantastic world, however, has been strong enough for me to grit my teeth and fight through Blighttown, planning my build and researching upgrades like I’ve never really done for any game before. I hate numbers! The equipment grind of games like WoW—spell power, healing power, resilience… who wants to do all this math?—has always been a massive turn-off to me. And yet here I stand scrolling through my inventory menu, comparing the defense and equip load constraints of Crimson Armor versus the Elite Knight set.

I’ll put myself through this for one reason: every debilitating boss is just a key to unlock an incredible new environment. I am constantly amazed by the intricacy of this world. When I first activated the elevator from the Undead Parish back to Firelink Shrine it blew my mind that these places were so physically close. The world is dense, riddled through with shortcuts, secret passages, and illusory walls just begging for you to roll up against them. There’s just so much to see.

But few games temper the joy of discovery with danger the way Dark Souls does.

When I first made my way down through the Great Hollow—all the while amazed by the size of this tree I was clambering around inside—I was struck by a picture as menacing as it was beautiful. My cage of roots opened up into the open air and I could see the trunks of other trees, just as massive, splitting the clouds in the distance. The music lent a hallowed air to the surroundings and I felt a sense of dread walking down to the beach (That song finally inspired me to use the free soundtrack download I’ve been sitting on since purchase).

In the midst of this ethereal, watery wasteland: the hydra. It looks distant at first glance, but any approach quickly reveals the length of its reach. It casts a shadow over the whole stretch of beach, so if you want to explore, to discover what else is hidden down here, you either fight or suffer under the constant threat of a magical conflagration.

Ten times I died to that hydra before I managed to hang on long enough to put it down. And you know what I found after that? A giant dragon. A giant dragon dragon sitting in a tree trunk who wanted to invite me to be part of his secret club.

This is why I love Dark Souls.

Even as I find myself tripped up and caught in the jaws of yet another murderous, mythical beast, I want nothing more than to throw myself back into the fray. Because I want to see what’s next.

I didn’t realize my horse was missing, at first. If I can quick travel close to a location I’ll head straight in, and have no need to mount up. And if I travel to a city, he’ll wait outside and I’ll never even see him.

But then I faced a trek, and I turned to look for Shadowmere and he was gone.

My heart lurched. How long had he been missing? Could I retrace my steps? This proved impossible, and I tried to put it out of my mind. “Maybe he’s just lost,” I said to myself, and for a few hours I’d listen for his telltale snort behind me each time I traveled.

He hasn’t returned, and I’m forced to move forward in my quest, relishing memories from the short time we had together. Like when he first emerged from the pool outside Sanctuary like a murky, malevolent Seabiscuit. Or when he rushed forward and spent twenty minutes kicking at a dragon priest in his unflappable, invincible majesty. And that time we fell off that mountain together and I had to re-load my save file.

Still, I hope he’ll find me someday. In my heart of hearts, I can’t believe he’s gone for good.

Skyrim is probably the main contributor to my NaNo failure. If I played on PC I’d attempt some kind of travelogue with screen caps, but for the moment I’m confined to 360.