a weapon to surpass blaming yourself or god while knee-deep in the dead

writing on video games, by chuck sebian-lander

Watch this essay on YouTube:

Memories are rotten, and memories rot. Entropy and age take their toll on our brains. We forget that we had ever remembered some fond glance, some summer's favorite song. Memories that remain form a stain upon the present: nostalgia, regret, and frustration boil out of the same misremembering. We clutch our past so tight that we squeeze its life away, and then the corpse shambles along behind us. It's bi-directional: the present moment, corrupted by decayed memory, itself falls into memory and decays as well.

This is a grim way to introduce a Doom WAD, isn't it.


surely, this topic — or at least the more general “hey john wick is like a video game” — has been covered ad nauseum by now. if nothing else, the fourth movie (which I just saw in the theater — god I missed movie theaters) has triggered some takes regarding certain scenes’ clear video-game influences.

still, because it’s fun and before we get into the meaty bits, let’s delight in some the mechanical and aesthetic respects in which john wick is a particular kind of video game franchise:


there’s a scene in the campaign of diablo 4’s open beta period, which ran this past weekend, where you revisit Tristram, the setting of the first diablo. (this marks four out of four mainline Diablo games to feature this extremely damned town.) upon this visit, though, you find Tristram now literally in hell, having been so deeply ruined and damned by residents both terranean and sub-terranean that its best real estate now lies along shores of lava.

yet here I am again, visiting those shorelines, gawking at the weird rattling cage the skeletons stuck deckard cain in, fondly reminiscing beside the now-dry well at the town center. still gets me, even now, with the nightmare fully on display.

there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.


the thing about dark souls is that apparently only From Software understands how to make it work.

I was thoroughly souls-pilled by ELDEN RING and spent my gaming time after that experience cruising through the entirety of From’s entries. I’ve now beaten every souls-y game they’ve put out with one exception (fuck you sekiro and your inexplicable timing windows). I loved every single one, even dark souls 2 with its idiosyncrasies and one-off design choices. DS1, ELDEN RING, and bloodborne. are now easy answers for me if anyone asks me for an arbitrary assortment of my favorite games (not a question I get a lot but it’s nice to have newer answers than mega man x and final fantasy tactics).

straying outside From’s comforting polish has not borne much fruit, unfortunately. I’ve played a number of souls takes from other studios, large and small. note here that I’m being a little narrower than what “soulslike” is usually taken to mean in larger discourse; what I want at the core is that sweet, sweet third-person character action with animation-rhythm-based combat.


I complained in my last essay about CONTROL's unwillingness to lean into being a video game. I'd been hoping it would violate its own spaces and mechanical boundaries in order to both amplify the potential of its premise and to highlight why video games have unique and untapped power to convey strangeness and unreality through mechanical, narrative, and level design. Alas.

So of course the next game on my to-do list was Tunic, a video game about its own video game-ness if ever there was one.


I finished CONTROL last week. Taken mechanically, it’s a good game. I found the combat loops satisfying, especially after collecting the full range of non-gun powers; there’s few things more satisfying in video games than hurling a filing cabinet at a bad guy’s head. The upgrade and accessorizing systems were too finicky and incremental for me, but the fundamental weapon choices were sound, even if I found myself relying almost exclusively on the powerful “pierce” sniper-rifle variation. Traversal is fun, which is key for a game that expects no small amount of backtracking. The visual and physics engines feel delightfully next-gen, even playing at 40 frames per second on the Steam Deck.

(As YouTubers and Redditors will tell you. 40 FPS is a real magic number on the Deck: at the size of the portable, it feels nearly as smooth as 60 and worlds better than 30, but the Deck’s much more capable of keeping the lower framerate steady.)


secrets on the scale are worth their weight in truth

I press on brick and tile in search of hidden passage, until

after terracotta rots and the house crashes down

I stand, triumphant, dead center in my labyrinth of ash

(this is an adaptation of a video essay of mine, which you can watch here.)

If you want to understand the function of mythology in God of War, both the original early-2000s series of games and their rebirth with 2018's God of War and last year's God of War: Ragnarok, consider that the titular “god of war” is you.