Wide but shallow.
It is time to acknowledge to myself that my tastes are settling. There’s physiological evidence that as the brain more or less finalizes development people are less open to new styles of sensory input, finding themselves drawn primarily to their favorite flavors of the past. Perhaps the memory of freshness becomes easier to bear than input that scrambles our brains, where once new experiences were more common than those immediately understood. Eventually that coin flips, and a formerly wide-open world seems threatening to what one believed concrete and understood.
Though I have tried to fight against it, the comfort of the known has become increasingly appealing. Not so much revisiting the defining albums of my youth (I claim while typing this on a plane home from seeing Nine Inch Nails with one of my best high school brothers) but finding new players using mostly the same sounds that best tickled my ears, digging through sites and links to discover the kids copping from what moved previous generations. And with videogames it’s a matter of recapturing the totality of what first felt like home. Side-scrollers and Akira Toriyama adjacent roleplaying games, dashing and double-jumps, first-person flow states were my wells, and I find myself still thirsty.
The last of these was primarily fulfilled by Titanfall and Titanfall 2, masterpieces appreciated by many but overshadowed in all the ways the big publishers care about. I have processed this horse to hell and back in this mag and on other sites, but between server woes and lifers with more cumulative hours invested than the earth has spent rotating, I regularly find myself investigating any videogames even lightly inspired by parkour shooting and/or big robot points of view. Luckily this is something of an emerging subgenre that I’m only just beginning to pick through, with entries like Devil Daggers working at the most minimal element of run and shoot and others like Boomerang X embracing first-person verticality.
Lately though I’ve been picking through Severed Steel, a title still honing in on the parkour and the shooting but sidestepping long set pieces for a series of puzzle rooms and time dilation. Which is to say that you are in full titan-pilot mode maneuvering around normally at a speed just a couple notches above manageable. What helps there is a handy ability to switch into bullet-time slow motion, which costs no resources when diving or sliding, thus establishing the first rule of Severed Steel: always be diving. The game encourages this, necessitates it, though there are probably those for whom it’s not strictly necessary. I applaud them.
You play as a young woman left for dead now clawing her way through an entire facility of guards with better weapons and shields, so I for one relish every advantage I can claw back in my favor while navigating stylistically polygonal industrial spaces, tasked with destroying certain objects or defeating all the guards, and just when you get the hang of that, you gain another tactical ability: to blow holes in most surfaces with just enough room to, yes, slide or dive through.
Severed Steel pulls the threads that Titanfall first stirred within me without settling for mere reproduction. The game acts more like a series of puzzle boxes, not unlike Celeste other others built with speedrunners in mind, granting you quick respawns upon death by misunderstanding or misapplication of reflexes or resources. Eventually you learn the layout of the stage and establish an optimal starting direction, and from there’s a matter of managing the path to the end. And while slow, time doesn’t stop; the player must still make their shots, be aware of ammo remaining lest they be required to throw their weapon to stun a guard and steal theirs, and watch ahead for the next step (hopefully not into a pit).
There’s a light story so far but it knows not to overstay the welcome. I’m not trying to memorize lore, but pathways, while also micro-managing my aim sensitivity. Severed Steel zooms in on the heart-stopping quick-flash moments of multi-player shooters but adjust the dials on situational awareness and muscle memory, allowing me to savor the moments of alacrity or instinct well-executed. These are the elements of videogames that have always charged me, and while I hope to continue finding them in genres or titles that a personally overwhelming, it’s nice when new ones feel like home.
Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com.