Valheim: Fast Track to Valhalla

I wanted to get to this sooner–rather, I thought I would have more time–but my new obsession gained Two. Million. new players almost overnight. It’s shattered almost all other benchmarks set by previous fan favorites on Steam, from concurrent players to peak players to players in general. Which is just insane. I don’t even remember where I spotted what I thought then was a diamond in the rough of Early Access games, but it was the equivalent of finding a Grade A adventure in the bargain bin at GameStop. Then, a few days later, my joy was everyone else’s. And I couldn’t be happier.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

No game is likely to disappoint that begins with a gigantic bird providing air taxi services to a dark and mysterious land filled with danger and death. The list of those games right now, off the top of my head, contains only two: Valheim, of course, and Dark Souls. But that’s beside the point. It’s a hell of a way to kick off a party. And there you are, the life of the party, dropped into what seems at first a peaceful meadow. How sweet, how nice. Like any other survival game, you quickly find yourself picking berries and chopping wood. Maybe you have a house by nightfall. Hopefully. Otherwise, when that sound cue hits and the music changes, I guarantee you’ll get a chill up your spine.

And that is perhaps Valheim’s greatest strength, more than likely what sets it apart from so many other games in a similar vein: What would happen if Breath of the Wild and Skyrim had a child that was then adopted by Minecraft? Well, you’d have Valheim! This is something we can find with most games that become startling breakout successes. Somehow, by brewing all these different ingredients in the same pot, the dish comes out fully its own and delectable. Make no mistake, there are plenty of games that try to cross genres and blend diverse mechanics only to end up a hobbling mutated mess. But the ones that carry it off? *chef’s kiss*

Soon after spectacular bird delivery, you will find yourself scurrying through the meadows and forests, plumbing ancient tombs and fighting trolls, and (best of all) braving the waves with spectacular fanfare and sunlit ocean spray. What Valheim accomplishes in spades is not merely its blend of varying genres into a complete experience, but also the feeling with which the game invests your movement through the world. Nothing quite drives this home as well as the first time you set sail, even on just a simple raft, and the exultant music begins. I truly felt at the start of an adventure, which might be the best way of classifying Valheim: as an adventure. And in a time when games have become more and more commodified, to the point that every would-be Adventure game feels scripted to the point of roboticism, this game is truly a shot in the arm.

So too is it the gift that keeps on giving. Every new environment poses new and often unpredictable challenges. Upgrading to new materials (and thus new types of equipment) is askew from the usual means, requiring advancements through what is Valheim’s pseudo questline. More than once I’ve stumbled upon something new, exciting and mysterious in an environment I thought I’d already combed over or explored thoroughly. I’m keeping more than a few things out of this review in hopes that you experience them in full effect for yourself. For a game that can’t really even be classified as Horror-adjacent, let’s just say Valheim serves up plenty of scares. Not unlike Dark Souls, to return to that brief bird-taxi comparison earlier.

The cherry on the top of all this, to use a cliche in reference to a game in which there are none, is that Valheim is not just in Early Access on Steam: it’s in Early-Early Access. Meaning, we’re just getting started, and there’s already so much to do. Indeed, this massive windfall of sales–a leap from thousands of players to millions–can only lift this longship even higher on the wave of success. I’m on the edge of my seat to see what these guys do next.

It’s rare enough that I enjoy a game this much, but rarer still that I enjoy it to the point I believe the hype is not only warranted but something I get caught up in myself. If you have the cash, and the time, I urge you to go and pick this amazing experience up as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed.

Disco Pandemonium: The Gotterdammerung of Ideology

A few days ago I beat what is among the best games to be released in the last decade: Disco Elysium. The title functions on so many levels of nuance it’s disgusting, as many as the game itself does, and hits them all straight on. I won’t be delving into what makes it a great game. Better and more prominent (and actual) games journalists have pried into that subject with more depth and expertise than I have any desire to match. Rather I want, like the narcissist I am, to explore how the game made me feel.

But first, a brief explainer: You are Harrier DuBois, a washed-up cop who was once a Rock Star Supercop, a Disco aficionado and creature of the night, renowned for your legendary benders and borderline insane commitment to The Truth. But that was many years ago. Now you’re like an aged bloodhound: You’ve still got the nose, but not the get-up-and-go. You need copious amounts of speed for that, and alcohol to bring you back down to earth. That sordid tumble from cocaine-fueled stardom has led you to Martinaise, as much of a backwater of a town as you are a wreck of a man, a filthy port town in the nation of Revachol. Martinaise’s geography is not one that many in America have to look far to find in the Real World. For those in the Rust Belt, it’s right outside their door. People struggling, hanging on; buildings decaying; trash collecting but never overflowing; just the right side of dismal to keep from collapsing altogether. In essence, a ghoulish behemoth struggling on if only for the fact that its muscle memory reads no other way.

Martinaise, and Revachol with it, however differs from your standard post-industrial American shithole in one key way: It was once host to a revolutionary vanguard. The communards of Martinaise overthrew the local syphilitic monarch and so invited the wrath of the MoralIntern, the game’s stand-in for the IMF/UN/Globalists, who proceeded to annihilate the upstart militiamen in search of a new world and a new future for themselves. To anyone with a glancing knowledge of history, particularly lefitst history, this is a tale told again and again and again. South America is rife with American interventionism in its leftist movements, frequently precipitating violent crackdowns from right-wing factions. Both Russia and China saw foreign intervention in their civil wars in pursuit of a communist state. I’d also be remiss if I did not mention the many movements crushed by domestic police violence a la the Paris Commune of 1871.

This is something we do not know or rightfully understand in America. The protests and organizing of the 1960’s and 70’s pale in comparison to these others, who came far nearer the sun than we could ever have dreamed. To have achieved something, only to see it laid waste by some vast and insurmountable power, is a pain we perhaps will never know. Only this most recent primary can conceivably come close and put that pain into perspective, this massive upswell of organized power only to be dashed by legally illegal election rigging and party apparatchiks. The only way we can truly experience this feeling of defeat and dread, outside Bernie having won and subsequently shuttled off by a military coup, is through media. And Disco Elysium, like Les Miserables before it (yes, I went there), captures this perfectly.

It presents the sort of ideological vacuum that takes hold in the aftermath of the destruction of a popular movement. That sense of directionless, a mindless plodding onward without any heading but that which the bare necessities of life obligate you to pursue, shelter and sustenance, brilliantly exploited by a capitalist system. A void is opened in the heart that any light struggles to escape: We had come so close and were struck down. How do you recover from such a blow? How do you rally the people when charge upon charge of “Look what happened before…” may be levied against you? I don’t have the answer. Disco Elysium did not have the answer and that is perhaps the most poignant, sorrowful note of the game. At the end of all this soul-searching, this uncovering and confronting the ghosts of the past, both your own and the city’s, you are left only with the simple and grim clarity that comes after realizing a thing cannot be put right again. The old wars are lost, and a terrible peace was sown a long time ago despite all your fighting. There is simply the present, wan and plodding, and you simply must get on with it. No amount of amphetamines or alcohol will transmute this washed-out landscape back to its fresh glory. It’s over. They’ve won. And here you are.

It is not so difficult, then, to read this as the dirge of leftism as we have come to know it in the real world. What are all our wars but ones that were fought long ago, with surer hands and many more besides, and still lost? I’ve asked already how we recover from such a blow, but a more brutal question is perhaps how do you build upon ruins? How do you hew a new edifice when the foundations are already cracking beneath you? You can’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise has his hand in your pocket. It’s so very hard to see by the light of the sunset, let alone the dawn. But if we hope to see the full brightness of another day, we’ve got to let the dawn come. We’ve got to realize the sun is setting on the old days and all that the old days entail. We’ve got to embrace the dawn, even if that means embracing the night. We’re living through the twilight as it is–the gotterdammerung of ideology.

If I were to attempt to accurately sum up this current predicament, I’d say modern leftism is the Disco Cop. Run-down, tired, clinging onto the bright tapestry of the past in hopes that it will impart some magnificence to our lives today. And so this is a moment in time with only two outcomes: Either we transcend this crisis point and forge ahead with a new path, a new heading; or we descend, squabbling amongst ourselves and the world around us, into Armageddon. But trying to remain where we are will destroy us. Like the Disco Cop, failing to move on and acting against inertia will only exacerbate the agony when the world chooses for us.

I am of the mind, after all the shit we’ve gone through from 2016 to now, that an entirely new approach needs crafted and pursued. No Democratic Party, no Green Party ticket. Throwing our lot in with either is to embrace the old, the old that hasn’t worked in decades and by no discernible logic looks to work in the future. It is tantamount to willingly take on baggage that isn’t yours. I’d go so far as to abandon the DSA, the SRA, the PSL, and all acronyms in between. Throw the colors in the trash and forget all the thinkers and writers, themselves whales beaching themselves on the shores of history. Retain the theory, reject the fountainheads that only encourage infighting and factionalism. If it casts aspersions or burdens us with iconography that does more to dissolve than to adhere, leave it in the dust bin. The cause is all, and everything is a tool and means to facilitate that cause. Nothing else and no more.

There’s no time or choices left but the one, as near as I can tell. We’re at the finish line, if not as a movement then as a species. This is a war, solely ideological at present, but that does not change the fact that we need to treat the cause as such. All our resources and machinery and infrastructure must be retrofitted to achieve the aim of a socialist state, whether electorally or otherwise. If we don’t right the ship soon, we’ll be living in the same nihilistic hellscape the Russians are right now. Our sense of individual reality will be courted and manipulated by an ominously nebulous state that exists beyond the bounds of electoral action or organizing, in which need to enforce a police state with open brutality is almost nonexistent. Indeed, a political landscape so efficiently managed and crafted to vent frustrations without resulting in substantive change that popular uprisings simply will not occur. I fear, like the Disco Cop, we may be at the precipice already.

So, which way are you gonna jump?

The New Metric

Increasingly I feel like the only number that matters in game reviews is not the Metacritic score, but the amount of hours the player can sink into the game. There are as many AAA heavy-hitters in this category as there are indie games. A game can have the most beautiful environments, the most intuitive gameplay, or the most thought-provoking story and a chorus of Dorito-scented wails will decry it as trash if the length is less than 20 hours. Conversely, a game can employ sprawling empty environments or horrible and unskippable dialogue if only it stretches the gameplay out enough to accommodate players who would grind out in the real world if their ass still fit through the door. I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2.

There was a time when the words ‘online’ or ‘open world’ sparked joy in my then-young gaming mind. I’d freak if it was both. But, more and more, this is sliding into strange territory. The industry is offering less experiences and more simulations. Unlimited, recurring play is creating frenetic lifetime customers. In any other game, especially if there’s voice chat, you would regard these people with the same type of wariness and separation from reality as you would the guy screaming at random people in the street. Maybe they were strange to begin with, but the ability to stay inside all day with an endlessly recycled slot machine experience is probably not helping. For instance, just let this sink in: There were players lobbying for Bungie to remove whatever feeble controls they’d put in place for Destiny 2 to prevent people from playing all day, every day. The idea of playing another game just never occurred to them, a fact that is pretty easy to track these days with the deployment of player profiles and playtime counters.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. You can come at this from so many different angles that your head will literally start to vibrate like a tuning fork. I don’t want to delve into the impending societal collapse making people want to stay indoors with fake realities or depriving them of the opportunities to do much else. Walk that road if you must. I encourage it. Neither do I want to get too deep into the idea that this manner of play creates a cycle of disassociation that feeds into itself and creates hostile, if not fatal, levels of community toxicity. I truly believe there is something emotionally wrong with a fair few of online/hardcore gamers, especially those who settle into one game for thousands of hours (yes, they exist); but there’s quite a lot to unpack there.

No, the simple thrust of my argument is this: length and scope, for the sake of themselves, do not a good game make. If you’ve substituted your real life for a digital one, I guess it makes sense to rate a game according to how long you can divorce yourself from life by playing it. I say divorce and not ‘immerse’ or (the always favorite) ‘get lost in’ because that’s not what these games do and not what these gamers are after. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I got immersed or lost in these experiences. Games like RDR2 and Kingdom Come: Deliverance are profoundly boring art projects. This only becomes apparent, of course, if you’re A) not paid to say otherwise or B) don’t have such a wealth of unallocated free time available that you can afford to ride a horse across a mostly empty landscape for thirty minutes. These games don’t provide immersive experiences; they provide expansive simulations that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

Armed with narratives tacked on to make use of the environments and that would put an angsty teen to shame with their quality and emotional resonance, these games certainly don’t offer anything in the way of compelling plots or characters. And don’t get me started on the gameplay. If it isn’t so stilted and clunky that you’ll die from hitting a tree going slightly faster than a snail, they present beautifully designed combat systems that you will literally never use. Outside the tutorial and first hours of the game, I can count on one hand how many people I’ve fought in RDR2 and Kingdom Come that I did not deliberately seek out and pick fights with. “You always have to do this”, you might say. And I’d call you a sad, pedantic fuck.

Skyrim, a game that I very rarely have any cause to praise, is overflowing with enemies to fight and tasks to accomplish that aren’t boring as fuck. Sure, there’s a fair amount of ‘go to cave X and kill bandit Y’. But there’s also more than a few detailed quest lines associated with multiple dungeons at many different progress intervals in the game. The plethora of sidequests I’m currently treated to in Kingdom Come? Some shit about a wedding, courting a miller’s daughter, getting a horse for some dude, etc. I have a quest to go box some people and another to clear out a bandit camp, but I know from prior experience that this will be it for some time. There’s simply nothing to fucking do.

And why? “It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal of life in the Middle Ages/Wild West,” is a common refrain. People died all the fucking time in both time periods. The Crusades were started to get all the shithead knights out of Europe because they were killing too many peasants. Banditry was rife. The history of the American West is filled with some of our only “legends”, filled with racism and ethnic cleansing though they may be. Things happened is my point. These reproductions play as though someone designed a giant, avant-garde extrapolation of the play No Exit. And, assuming it’s an accurate portrayal to create a giant extrapolation of No Exit, what the fuck is the point? My answer: to waste as much time as humanly possible in order to distract myself from my miserable kissless virgin existence.