Sunday, December 19, 2010

Keeping Enemies Closer: My Favorite Video Game Bad Guys

THE TAKEN - I recently beat Alan Wake. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, primarily because of the enemies players encounter throughout. Referred to as 'The Taken' these shadowy, possessed human beings pop out of the darkness hurling hand-axes and scythes, screaming and growling at Wake as he makes his way through a demon-infested landscape. 'The Darkness' itself is your enemy in Wake and the game does an excellent job making a rather abstract enemy and abstract concept very tangible thanks to great sound design, physics and visuals, and the literal manifestation of the darkness in these local madmen chasing after you in the night. What makes these enemies so enjoyable to battle is not just their definitive characterization and how they are intimately linked with the narrative, it is the mechanics of how a player defeats them that adds so much to the experience. Players rely on their flashlight throughout the experience to strip away the darkness that gives The Taken their power. Once the darkness has been peeled back by the light, they are vulnerable and players can shoot/disintegrate them. This one little gameplay mechanic of first shining a flashlight on the enemy before you can shoot them sets these villains and Wake's combat apart. Where almost all other shooters would just have you pop your enemy in the head, Wake creates a unique and simple combat system that is both fun to play and strengthens the metaphor of the entire game.

The experience got me thinking about other video games where the enemies were unforgettable. Most video games, especially shooters, enlist a series of nameless, thoughtless henchmen who are not interesting to fight nor look at, much like the sea of dead g-men Bond has taken out over the years in the pursuit of getting to his villain. In the course of any video game players can face a variety of bad guys depending on the genre, but usually there are the grunts/henchman/lower tier enemy, variations on the lower tier, a boss, and then possibly a main villain. That first tier often gets boring because you are battling that enemy throughout the entire game. It's rare for the last battle you have with the lowliest video game bad guy to be as enjoyable as the first. But there are a few games where that happened for me and I'd like to share, to give these games a good recommendation primarily because of the villains and combat therein.SPLICERS - BioShock's world is so alive, brilliant, beautiful, and terrifying in large part due to the bad guys you face throughout the entire game. The Splicers (a variety of genetically enhanced and mutated human beings) are, like any good enemy in a good game, intimately connected with the story and an excellent metaphor for the dystopia of Rapture. They are sad beasts, screeching and growling thoughout Rapture's decaying corridors. They are hideous and beautifully rendered and attack in a variety of ways from a variety of places. There are Spider Splicers, Houdini Splicers, and several others that keep combat fresh and frenetic. Again, excellent sound design gives life to these enemies, as well as the use of light and shadow to give you a sense of their presence at all times. If these enemies weren't actually fun to fight then they wouldn't be so memorable, but there are few times I've felt more empowered and immersed in a gaming experience than when battling a group of Splicers. The combat does not simply demand that a player have accurate aim. The combat demands a player use their brain, and encourages them to be as creative as they would like to be, especially the sequel. In the way that Wake adds light to create a shooting dynamic that is more interesting and more fun than most games, BioShock adds Plasmids to the mix, allowing players to hurl fire, ice, and electricity like a modern day, shotgun wielding wizard.
THE NECROMORPHS - Another enemy that lurks in the shadows and is that much more memorable as a result, The Necromorphs of Dead Space are some of the most terrifying and enjoyable enemies to battle. While Dead Space's intense campaign is punctuated with big boss fights, it is the unexpected and more common Necromorph conflict that succeeds most. The Necromorphs are interesting less because of how they exist within the Dead Space narrative (the game is somewhat vague on their origin. Something to do with an ancient relic and such), and more because of how frightening they are and how fun they are to destroy. The combat in Dead Space relies on dismemberment. Where such is usually just a fun little adage in other games where limbs can be shot off, Dead Space makes dismemberment the primary combat mechanic. With a unique arsenal that works to flesh out Isaac Clark, the protagonist, players can choose from a variety of ways to dispatch these foes in a visceral and brutal fashion. Players cannot simply shoot wildly and expect results. They must be precise, innovative, and thoughtful to succeed. Dead Space doesn't trouble itself with metaphors the way Alan Wake and BioShock do. It simply wants to create a thrilling and immersive horror experience. It succeeds completely and while these baddies might not be as "deep" as The Taken or The Splicers, they're certainly more terrifying. They do serve a slightly esoteric purpose that functions as an intelligent contrast that fleshes out the game's visuals. Their slithering, multi-tentacled torsos and growling, disfigured skulls work in tandem with Isaac's grunts and screams, his multi-plated and menacing mining suit, and the harsh environment to create something constantly violent and visually painful. The world of Dead Space is cold and unforgiving, the environments heavily industrial and lifeless. The Necromorphs are the polar opposite. They are extreme humanity, extreme flesh set lose on a world of dead metal. Like The Taken and The Splicers, the presence of the Necromorphs is pervasive and players never know when they will be besieged on all sides. This sense of tension, and the constant threat of an enemy that is fun to battle, will ensure a game's villains and combat will not be forgotten.
GRUNTS - There are an assortment of enemies in the Halo franchise. Jackals, Brutes, Elites and variations within. None of them are as enjoyable to kill as The Grunts. While these little guys aren't menacing in the least, and while they are in no way meant to be anything other than fodder, and while Halo doesn't bother itself with an extra bit of combat intricacy beyond aim and fire, Grunts are so funny that I have to put them on the list. They lost a bit of their charm in Reach because they no longer spoke English. But in Halo 1, 2, and 3, hearing these crazy little aliens scream "Oh no!" and then seeing them flop over after a headshot was always entertaining. From the beginning of the game to the end, regardless of how easy they were to destroy or how little the combat changed, shooting Grunts was such a blast that I still consider them one of the best, most memorable gaming bad-guys.
KOOPA TROOPA - The Koopas are much older than The Splicers and the Necromorphs. But they are a worthy predecessor and an indicator of things to come. The Koopas are one of the earliest examples of varying combat so as to keep it interesting throughout a game. Where as players simply jump on top of Goombas to flatten them, they encounter something new in a Koopa Troopa. They can jump on a Koopa, which then pops it out of its shell, and then players can kick the shell (later grab it) and hurl it back at the Koopa to kill it, sometimes taking out several enemies at once. This little differentiation creates a fresh combat mechanic that, like the other aforementioned games, encourages player innovation and precision.

A good video game enemy is both interesting to fight and usually connected to the narrative of the game. It works to give life to the game-world and provides a challenge for players. The best enemies are not the faceless, nameless terrorists of the Call of Duty franchise or the roided up Locusts of Gears of War. The best enemies are enemies that evolve along with the combat, or are so interesting from the outset that they are always fun to fight. They must be constructed in consort with the combat design. In each of these games, with the exception of The Grunts, there is more than one step taken to defeat them. You must do one thing so that you can then do another thing. That very simple two-step dynamic is what separates a memorable enemy from a forgettable one, as well as a certain level of intangible charm which must come from the creative minds of intelligent game designers and good writers.

Who are your favorite video game enemies?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ten Brilliant Works of Art You Should Add To Your Netflix Instant Queue


1. Beavers: IMAX: Because beavers are like people and really, really, really funny to watch.

2. Bigger, Stronger, Faster: Because it's a maniacally compelling documentary and steroids really aren't that bad.

3. Black Dynamite: Because it's one of the best movies made in the last five years.

4. Degrassi: The Generation: Because it's about the most fucked up high school in history and you went to high school too.

5. Friday Night Lights: Because football and exceptional television writing are compatible.

6. I Am Comic: Because there's no other documentary centered around stand-up done well.

7. The Signal: Because you're gonna watch this movie then you're gonna be all like, "oh shit."

8. The State: Because sketch comedy shows with really amazing/talented ensembles are funny.

9. Thankskilling: Because the entire crew is aware how terrible this film really is.

10. That’s My Bush: Because you can't go wrong with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in their prime.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Green Lantern Teaser Impressions


First off, I hate teaser trailers. There are a few exceptions but usually they suck. No story, no marketing scheme, and just a mishmash of cool looking shots. The real deal is the theatrical trailer. So for me its hard to judge a movie by its teaser trailer. That being said, here we go.

Green Lantern debuted its teaser on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - second best Potter movie next to the Prisoner of Azkaban. Anyway, I had already seen it on my computer a few nights earlier and I have to say I'm disappointed. I was so looking forward to something for Green Lantern on Harry Potter but this teaser was just bad. Visually I am sold. I think it looks great and that they have totally nailed the the ring and its powers. The thing I didn't like was how campy it seemed. I can't stand that Hollywood has to add so much camp to super hero movies. Its disgusting and the main reason why super hero movies have been held back for so long. Anyway, I would have thought that Warner Bros would have learned from the Dark Knight that serious is the way to go. To me the teaser made it look like Ryan Renolds' Hal Jordan was more of a comic than his comic book counter part. Now, they may be trying to appeal to a larger crowd early on with a teaser focusing more on the humor which I hope is the case. I mean, it is a new super hero that people haven't ever seen on the big screen.

I just can't help but feel disappointed. This could be the Avengers for DC Entertainment, but better. They don't need the Justice League movie if a Green Lantern movie is done well. Green Lantern encompasses all of the DCU so well that it unite all the characters and continuity under one film franchise in a way that the Justice League couldn't. I just hope that this is just WB testing the waters with which way they should approach marketing this movie.

On a better note, Sinestro looks pimp as hell, Kilowog is awesome for the split second we see him, and Tomar Rey looks killer.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kinect Review: Part 2: "To The Core"

Kinect is a motion sensor designed by Microsoft that is compatible with the Xbox 360. It promises to reinvent the medium of video games by allowing players to control their on-screen avatars without the need of a controller. The concept is simple: you are the controller. A player stands in front of the sensor and performs a series of simple movements; jumps, ducks, flails arms etc and the character in the game mimics these gestures. The effectiveness of the system is dependent upon the software (the game) and how many points of reference on the human body the game itself is aware of. A game like Kinect Adventures which comes packaged with the sensor only picks up the most basic movements and the most dominant parts of the body. Head. Hands. Legs. A game like Dance Central, however, is cognizant of the entire body and the subtleties of various movements.

There is much skepticism and even disdain directed at Kinect. Some of the skepticism is purely technical, a healthy disbelief in the functionality of the system. The disdain comes from seasoned gamers or the "hardcore" or the "core" gaming elite who recognize Kinect for what it is, a concerted effort to bring a casual audience to the Xbox 360. Nintendo and it's wand has dominated the casual audience for a while now, and Kinect is clearly Microsoft's take on the motion control concept and their way to tap into a market that has alluded them up until now. To someone like myself who loves the mature and intelligent video games one finds on Xbox, someone who loves shooters and RPGs and competitive online play, Kinect represents a threat to serious gaming. It also represents an insult. I recognize what you're doing, Microsoft, we say and I'm not falling for it. Give me Black Ops. I'm not eight years old.

I want to demonstrate how both the skepticism and disdain for Kinect that comes from the "core" gaming audience is not only hypocritical, but, very simply, wrong.

Before you read further, know that I consider myself a "core" gamer. I do not care for "casual" games typically as they are almost always directed at a nonexistent intellect. I play Halo: Reach almost every night and have played Halo competitively for nearly five years. I'm just getting into Black Ops, which is fantastic, as well as the other Call of Duty games, and my next games will likely be Dead Space 2, Gears of War 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Batman: Arkham City. I have not owned a Wii, nor will I ever. I have had fun playing it on occasion, but it is almost entirely devoid of the kind of intellectual, artistic experiences one can find on the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Casual games and casual consoles are almost always meant, very simply, to make money. One can praise the Wii for being revolutionary, but, in my eyes, all the worth of its innovation becomes moot when considering the library of games it offers, and the endless sea of money-making peripherals. If an iPod cut your thumb every time you turned up the volume or selected a new track, would you want to praise its touch-sensitive technology? For me, that's the Wii. Little cuts to the thumb, and punches to the gut, thanks to its spotty control mechanics and its terrible game selection. There is another aspect to the Wii I find particularly insulting and that is its growing predilection for nostalgia. Nintendo lures not only the casual audience into its deceptive embrace, it now manages to lure those "core" gamers who rail against the casual market, by offering them up new incarnations of the games they grew up on. "New" Mario, Super Smash Brothers, Resident Evil 4, and now GoldenEye.

And this brings me to the issue of hypocrisy among the "core" audience that refuses to acknowledge Kinect. Almost all of those core gamers who bleed their eyes out in front of Black Ops have a Wii seated right next to their PS3 or Xbox. They will make fun of the Wii because they are aware of its purpose, but they simply will not be able to control their love of nostalgia. They will buy every version of their favorite games such as GoldenEye, despite not needing said experience to happen ever again. But Kinect...well Kinect is stupid. Kinect is for kids. Kinect is just about money.

The hypocrisy of refusing to experience Kinect because it's meant for the casual audience while partaking in the nostalgic experiences the premiere casual console offers, is very clear, but there is another layer of incorrect thinking to this line of thought which leads the core, elitist audience to a fundamental error. Ironically, the core audience is refusing to experience something they have longed for their entire lives.

Ignoring the marketing campaign directed at family fun and children, smiling people, and cartoony avatars, there is an aspect to Kinect unrelated to the actual software itself that directly appeals to the core gaming audience.

Sorry to generalize, but chances are that if you are among the gaming elite, you, at the very least, tend to be aware of the science-fiction genre, Star Wars, Star Trek, or you tend to be unabashed fanboys of such things. Even if you hate these franchises and have never really been impressed by the sci-fi genre, you most likely have fantasized about living in a world where you could tell a computer what to do or that you could cycle through holographic menus with your fingertips not unlike Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Kinect gives you this experience.

This is the irony. These core gamers obsessed with their worlds of blood and battle and experience points, who adore Jean Luc and his futuristic toys, who long to live in a world where their technology is just as advanced and responsive and personalized, who refuse to experience Kinect because it's childish, are actually shutting out an experience meant for them, an experience that offers them the futuristic world they've always craved.

Once a player plugs Kinect into their Xbox and goes through the Kinect ID process, all they need to do is stand in front of the sensor, wave, and then the system will recognize their face and sign the player into their profile. This gesture takes a gamer to the Kinect Hub, a series of menus not unlike the dashboard. It is separate from the Dashboard, making Kinect function like a console within a console. I like this, because it in no way interferes with what the "serious gamer" wants to do. It simply accentuates it.

In the Kinect Hub, players can hold their hand before the screen and cycle through the panes presented, select applications like ESPN or Zune. The more enjoyable way to navigate this menu is by your voice, however. At any point I can say, "Xbox" and then a list of options will come up. The rule is simple: if you see it, you can say it, and the Xbox will recognize your command. If there is a lot of ambient noise or if the volume on the television is loud during a video it may not be able to hear you. But I have rarely encountered a scenario where the Kinect did not recognize my command, even when speaking softly. I can say "Play disc" and the disc in the tray will start to play. "Pause". "Rewind". "Play". "Kinect Hub". All of these commands and several others elicit the appropriate response from the technology. This may sound mundane on the page, but I cannot emphasize enough how enjoyable it is to play with the system in this way. I went to my kitchen and as I was walking I said, "Xbox...pause" and the video paused as I got a drink. On my way back I told it to play and it obeyed. You truly feel like you're in the future and thus far, this is my favorite aspect to the technology. What's interesting is that the impressiveness of this functionality wears off after a few days. You simply become used to it. You casually talk to your Xbox and it obeys. You become one of the characters in said sci-fi stories that nonchalantly have a conversation with their computer.

It is simply good technology. And, unlike the Wii, it is truly revolutionary. In Kinect we see the future of all interactive technology. To miss out on it would be like refusing to watch a "talkie", refusing to turn on a light, refusing to listen to a CD, or refusing to talk on a cell phone. You will miss the first significant step into the sci-fi worlds we have only previously dreamed of experiencing.

And, above all, it's just fun. Fun is something the "core" audience simply doesn't care about anymore. The blowhards at IGN and their legions of followers, the jaded and lifeless gamers that trade in their cartridges and discs at their local Gamestop to get their next digital hit, have lost sight of what this medium is actually supposed to be about.

Fun.

So many gamers don't actually enjoy video games any more. They play to accrue experience, to be able to talk with their friends about a shared experience, to beat opponents, and to forget about their real lives. This is understandable but the fundamental need to experience a childlike joy and wonder has been lost, traded for the non-innocent and overly critical world of "hardcore gaming". There are quips and witticism about every game that fails, undo praise to franchises that succeed only due to their name, and scores are assigned, reducing opinion, thought, and idea to a simple numeric value, something that saps the life out of these artistic and interactive experiences.

It is as if the core audience doesn't want to have fun. If people are smiling and jumping up and down and if something isn't hyper realistic and dripping in blood, they are disinterested and dissatisfied and formulate their unjustified opinions and disdain on nothing but air. This is a shame because they will miss out on an experience that is so universal that it appeals to all audiences, both core and casual. This is the brilliance of Kinect one will not find anywhere else. It appeals to your Grandma and your eight year old cousin, but the technology is so brilliant and tangible that it will appeal to you as well. And, unlike the Wii and most casual games, the technology and the software is intellectual. You have to think and you have to move on your feet in order to play a Kinect game. It's not the deliberative intellectualism one finds in an RTS or a lengthy RPG. It's more akin to the intelligence and activeness required in an actual sport or athletic activity.

The simple act of seeing your avatar move as you move reignites the childish joy one felt the first time they pressed A to make Mario jump. I firmly believe that you simply must not have a soul if you don't smile as you play River Rush or Rally Ball, or see anyone do a little dance and their avatar do the same dance. There is something magical in this experience that turns everyone into an laughing child. It is unavoidable and wonderful. Kinect reminds us of the days when we wanted to play video games with another person in the same room. It makes watching people play video games fun again and it inspires us to stand up, in the same space, work together, and laugh together. It tears down the layers of social etiquette and self-awareness we build up during the course of our daily lives.

Thanks to the file-share system in Kinect Adventures which allows you to share the photos taken during games with your friend, and the built in mic in the sensor which allows voice-chat without the need of a headset, the sense of distance between you and your online teammate is not so noticeable anymore. Watching your avatars interact in the middle of a game also strengthens your sense of connection. Video Chat works well also, with only a minor delay, and allows your online pal to be more than a disembodied voice in your ear. You can have a conversation with one another as if you're in the same living room.

If it were buggy and did not work, the magic would quickly fade away. I would not be so quick to praise Kinect if it did not work. My critical mind would win. But it does work and it works surprisingly well. There are occasional blips and a game like Kinect Adventures will not recognize certain things you do, but it doesn't have to. It's so much fun and the games themselves varied enough and actually demanding of one's skill, that a little moment of "lost translation" will go unnoticed.

Only the most cynical and jaded gamer will ignore the joy this console immediately evokes. Kinect succeeds where any other motion control technology will fail because there is no barrier between you and the game beyond the television. It reminds us of our childhood by making us jump up and down and behave happily and unselfconsciously, so it succeeds in the way of nostalgia. It sneakily gets us off the couch and moving, and it brings people together (a concept we Xbox Live gold members who sit in dimly lit rooms in our underwear in beanbag chairs sipping Coke as we kill each other in Black Ops believe refers simply to our ability to join a party and talk to each other through a headset), and it does revolutionize gaming.

Prior to experiencing Kinect I never thought that it would actually appeal to the core gamer in me. I thought it would, at best, provide a little distraction and maybe a few laughs. But, when I play, I find myself taking it seriously, strategizing, using my body as I would use the controller. I realized today that River Rush, one of the Kinect Adventures, is a combination race/platforming game. I had previously not actually considered its gaming influences or how it related to my gaming life. I realized, while timing my jumps from cloud to cloud and ledge to ledge as my raft hurtled downstream, that I was Mario in this situation. I was the Prince of Persia. I was Tim of Braid. While this is not a traditional platformer and only a mere microcosm of what this technology has to offer, I realized that I wanted to collect those coins and hit a good jump just as much as I want to earn that kill and that XP in Black Ops. You will find yourself anxiously and vigorously trying to succeed so long as you keep an open mind. We gamers love seeing flashing corns and rising experience bars. We have a "gamer lexicon" ingrained in us and Kinect recognizes this. If we see a coin or an orb, we yearn to have it. What Kinect permits is for us to reach up and grab it in a new way.

So far I have only played Kinect Adventures and Dance Central. Adventures is a fun compilation that will quickly get old. But it's always fun to do a quick River Rush or Rally Ball and the gauntlet is a legitimate workout. This is what I love about Kinect. It forces me to move. It forces me to literally play a video game. This is a good thing and it's an interesting new way to play the medium I adore. There's a level of tangibility to the experience and there are real-world results thanks to the experience one simply cannot find in traditional games. I actually feel better because I have played Kinect Adventures and Dance Central almost every night since release and done situps and pushups during load screens. It tricks me into working out. It's so much better than the gym because it's actually fun. I can earn achievements, score higher points, play with my friends and family, live out a fantasy, and actually enjoy myself as opposed to enduring the sterile drudgery of a gym.

In the future I would like to see Kinect function with the dashboard so there is uniformity to the experience. It does not work with essential applications like Netflix and this is a bit of a disappointment. Microsoft likely did this on purpose so as to extend the life of the system by gradually making it applicable to other parts of the dashboard. All Microsoft needs to do is keep making games and fund artists who will think of using this technology in new, fantastic ways that marry traditional gaming with this new format.

Kinect in no way destroys serious gaming. It simply offers a totally new and innovative way to interact with the medium you love. It is so much fun to head over to the Kinect Hub and play one of these games and get moving for about 30 minutes and actually be happy, and then settle on down to a game of Halo or Black Ops. It works the body, the mind, and provides a more complete emotional experience of video games.

You will find joy here. You will find a challenge. You will find the future.

Kinect is a welcome addition to the Xbox that makes the system feel more complete, rather than fractured between casual and core, and it will in no way deter the core audience from having the experience they desire, which makes their ire all the more misguided.

The first time I saw my avatar move along with me, a huge smile came on my face, and I felt that sense of revelation which has punctuated a variety of great gaming moments in my life. I wish you the same experience.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kinect Review: Part 1: "I have measured out my life in...video games."

I can measure my life in video games. Some of my earliest memories revolve around that simple, gray brick called Nintendo, a pair of plumber-brothers, some ducks desperately attempting to escape the flash of my plastic death-dealer, and a handful of uneasy wild gunman. I would sit in a dark room in the first house I remember living in, three years old, excitedly tapping A to propel Mario over that next obstacle, timing the jumps perfectly so that he could latch onto the flagpole at the highest point to earn me the best score.

And then, along with my life, video games evolved. I can recall the Super NES and a new, exotic land for Mario to roam, Link's journey into the past that I simply could not complete, the red and green shells of Mario Kart, reliving the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia and the rest of those far away characters from my favorite childhood films in Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I remember Streetfighter II, The Adventures of Batman and Robin, my heart racing as I leaped from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of Catwoman. I remember when there was no such thing as a save game. I remember when you rarely played video games by yourself. I remember when it was fun to watch someone else play and to learn how to overcome the game's obstacles together. I remember renting games. 3-days. Late fees.

And then again, things changed, drastically. The two dimensional worlds that had trapped our beloved gaming mascots suddenly and shockingly expanded into the third. One of the most vivid memories I have was after getting N64 and powering up Mario 64. Mario's 3D face juts out at you and he proclaims "It'sa meeee, Mario!" and it was as if we had never seen him before. "Oh my God!" my brothers and I said, huddled round the television together in awe. "It's like virtual reality!" This seems so naive now, but then, having never seen anything like this before, having only experienced games that scroll from left to right, up and down, this was a revelation.

And then there was the first time I ever became truly lost in a video game world; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The land of Hyrule and its inhabitants moved me in a way I had never experienced in any book or film. Riding my trusty steed Epona from Temple to Temple, agonizing over the puzzles, watching my brother figure them out, marveling at the beauty and depth of the story, I became aware of and fell in love with the artistry of video games. While I was cognizant of Playstation, I simply wasn't fortunate enough to have one. So the years that followed the N64 were somewhat dissatisfying for me. But I made the most of it. I discovered the world of PC gaming and recall many a happy hour spent in the dark and mature worlds of Thief, Diablo, and Deus Ex. This is when my desire for deeper, more intellectual experiences was born. It was nearly impossible to find such on The Gamecube until the release of one of the first truly next-gen games Resident Evil 4. Never had I actually seen a video game that looked and moved quite so well before. With rumblings of a new generation on the horizon, the inevitable Playstation 3 and the supposedly destined to fail X-Box, Resident Evil gave us the first taste of what to expect in the way of next gen shooters. The simple act of peering over Leon's shoulder, seeing the world from this perspective, was as jarring and refreshing as moving Mario through a three dimensional space for the first time.


And then there was Halo. I had renounced Nintendo's childish ways and graduated to a world from which I will not return. Though the Halo franchise has soured a bit for me, at the time, the first Halo game for the original X-Box was every bit a revelation as Zelda and Resident Evil 4. I was a junior in high school by the time I was able to play it, and I found that this big black box appealed to my sensibilities. Whether it was the Chief, Sam Fisher, or the world of Morrowind, I found Microsoft had crafted a console that contained the intelligence and depth I craved. Then came Halo 2, and I discovered, for the first time in my life, that I was better at a video game than my brothers. I took them online and beat them and I was proud. I took this pride to college where I discovered the world of online gaming. I would spend days with my newfound friends, our bond forged by a common interest, a common love, and deal out death, joy, and frustration in the glorious maps of Halo 2 multiplayer.

And then there was Xbox 360, and it was good. The new generation had arrived and with it came unparalleled graphical quality and potential for new, powerful stories. Finally, I had my own Xbox 360 and I could play with my friends online in the wonderful world of Xbox Live. Demos, Arcade Games, voice-messages, video chats, parties, and the like completely altered my video game life. No longer would I just toil for hours alone in dark rooms pushing levers and earning XP. I would also take to the virtual world with friends, working together, forming strategies, and laughing endlessly in the pursuit of victory and recapturing that very simple, childhood need for joy; the thing which began all of this. Halo 3 would be released in one of the most aggressive and epic marketing campaigns in history and for three years following its release I would return to its online component in search of a higher rank and better abilities night after night.

But my video game life seemed incomplete. I had still never experienced what the Playstation had to offer. Then came the summer of my junior year at college. Finally, I saw what I had been missing all those years, and my eyes were opened even wider yet again. I immersed myself in the role of Snake for two weeks straight and had one of the most pleasurable, seamless gaming experiences of my life thanks to Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, & 3. Then came Ico and Shadow of the Collosus, the only video games I have ever played that have actually incorporated Zen into their worlds.

There are a host of other experiences worth noting, blips on the radar of my gaming life that forever alter how I perceive this medium. BioShock was one such experience that ushered me into its world and convinced me there is no question of whether or not games are art. The "Would you kindly?" reveal is one of the few moments, in any entertainment experience, that has caused my jaw to literally drop.

Whether it's Link, Snake, The Chief, or Andrew Ryan, Nes, SNES, N64, Playstation, or Xbox, I can easily recall how these devices and these games have impacted my life. It is almost always positive and worthwhile. I had thought that my future gaming life would only be punctuated with a few, small revelations in the way of excellent gaming experiences such as Red Dead Redemption. I did not believe that the fundamental way I played games, thought about games, or enjoyed games would evolve much further.

But it has, yet again...thanks to Kinect.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What right does Andy Serkis have to a God Complex?

Expectation and reality rarely meet. Often they are on divergent paths that only occasionally intersect. Those moments of intersection (if our expectations were positive and rooted in a hope for quality) are where gamers experience moments of pure bliss. Good games achieve this. The best games exceed expectation, or cleverly reveal little during the process of their marketing campaign so as to temper our radical enthusiasm. It is impossible in today's information-obsessed world for high profile games like The Force Unleashed, Fall Out: New Vegas, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, or Call of Duty: Black Ops to exist without a series of high expectations being roused in a gamer's mind. Videos, articles, and demos may wow us and entice us during the lead-up to the actual release of the game, but the reveal of such moments inevitably diminish their impact when one actually experiences them in the video game itself. Furthermore, that hideous and inescapable expectation is always there nagging us to question our experience as we play. Does this live up to the hype? Is this better than the first game? Have they made enough changes?

And so our judgment becomes unavoidably tainted and we are unable to simply be in the game. In order to have a truly pure opinion of a video game then, it would follow that we must come to it without expectation. For the first time in a long time I had such an experience in the likes of Enslaved. Sometimes we must turn to the lesser known, often-considered mediocre games to experience something in a refreshing, unbiased way.

I knew nothing of this game. I saw no developer diaries and I read no articles. I knew nothing of its existence until I saw it as a demo on X-Box Live. I downloaded it and played it. I was immediately interested thanks to an exciting opening that introduces players to Monkey, a brutish protagonist that is deceptively simple. I was shocked by the polish of the experience and overjoyed with the fresh platforming mechanics. One of the things I loved about Uncharted 2 was that it took the standard mechanics of leaping from pipe to pipe or ledge to ledge and made it feel like something new. Pips snapped. Ledges broke away. Tentative and natural handholds would shift and curl and Drake would be forced to improvise and latch onto something new. Enslaved adopts a similar platforming style, and in many ways perfects it. Instead of convoluted puzzles involving lever-pulls and mirror-adjustments, players find themselves leaping about natural environments that don't require a suspension of disbelief. One of my problems with typical platforming puzzles, the kind you find in Prince of Persia or Uncharted, is that I simply cannot bring myself to ignore the fact that human beings (fictional as they may be) had to construct these elaborate mazes. I therefore feel insulted by the game itself when I'm supposed to believe that some ancient civilization purposefully constructed these mirrors, ledges, ladders, gears, and statues so that a wise-crackin' leading man can leapfrog his way to some incoherent lever attached to the eyebrow of one of those statues so as to make a door open.

Enslaved does not work this way. While there are a few lever pulling puzzles, the game mostly relies on creating platforming sandboxes one could easily find in reality. In providing a variety of environments, some industrial and others natural, the game rarely feels repetitive in the way of platforming.

The same cannot be said for the combat. The strong attack, weak attack, counter, and block mechanics of the game are fairly standard and function well so long as the camera does not become pinned against a wall. But the game features about four different fights repeated throughout the entire experience. This creates a sense of repetition, but what Enslaved does well is ensure that those four fights are always fun no matter how many times you do them. Monkey's moves are brutal and vast and once the simple mechanics are mastered and powerups are unlocked, the player can link together a series of devastating blows to a variety of enemies. The only time I became tired of this system was one tower defense section of the game where waves of mechs attacked me and four power generators I had to protect, while a series of Gatling gun wielding mechs rained fire down upon me from above. It was simply annoying. This section seemed to last forever and thanks to limited ammo and a terrible ranged attack dynamic, I found myself frustrated. The game also likes to throw a bunch of little enemies at you to make the big enemy you're already fighting that much harder to kill. This is typical boss-battle fair and it's so much less intelligent then actually creating a newer, more interesting boss to fight. The real life equivelent would be as follows: a dog attacks you and you defeat it. It puts its tail between its leg and disappears. You run down the street for a few hours, knocking a few gnats off your face along the way. Then the dog reappears, strength returned and with perhaps a new attack up his paw. And, this time around, the gnats start attacking too. So now you've got gnats in your face, in addition to the same obnoxious dog-fight you had earlier in the day. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting to have to fight an alligator instead of the dog again?

Even with these frustrations I still found so much fun in the climbing and the story, particularly the excellent relationship between Monkey and his female companion Trip, that I deemed the game a success and looked forward to the ending.

The first several chapters of the game are so good and the characterization so convincing that I'm inclined to recommend this game. I would like to say the voice actors did a brilliant job but I find that to be an inadequate compliment due to the superb quality of facial animations and the writing. The acting in Enslaved is superb. Trip and Monkey are extremely likable characters (Trip is especially endearing. You want nothing more than to hold her and tell her everything is gonna be okay...and marvel at her rockin' body...I'm aware that she's not real) and the subtlety of their love story is expressed perfectly in cut-scenes and in the actual mechanics of the game. I cannot express enough how the simple action of being able to touch or hold an AI character in-game provides a sense of connection with that character, the game world, and makes it so much more tangible and satisfying an experience. Picking up Trip and carrying her on Monkey's back serves an emotional purpose as well as a practical one: keeping her close is helpful as she has a list of commands you can use to strategize in your attacks. Trip surprisingly does not get in your way, though, which is a rarity for AI teammates.

Again, because I had no expectations, my experience of Enslaved throughout the first several chapters was one of continual surprise and joy, and a fair judgment of its merit. I said to my brother, while playing, "This is a great game". Not only was it fun to play, it was fun to watch. The science-fiction tale, combined with ancient stories of archetypes and heroic journeys, is an excellent standard other games of this kind should stride. Enslaved demonstrates that simply because it's a video game this does not mean cheesey dialogue can ever be good dialogue. A recycled bad-action movie plot does not make a good current video game plot. Good dialogue is simply good dialogue and Enslaved has this. The game-writer's vision of the future is also unlike most you will see in the post-apocalyptic genre.

This goodness was apparently too difficult to maintain, however. About two-thirds through the game a new character is introduced to the story named Pigsy. The very interesting and captivating duo of Trip and Monkey becomes a trio. Not only is Pigsy obnoxious, he's entirely useless. He talks incessantly and his dialogue is so clearly trying to be funny that it's painfully not funny. I was waiting for him to serve his purpose, disappear, and allow the good game I'd been playing to continue, but he never goes away. I wish I could see passed him, but he destroys a dynamic I had become really invested in and I couldn't see nor hear him without thinking: The writers really wanted to have strong characterization here. They really wanted some comic relief. They really wanted that whacky, introverted character to flesh out this story.

And so Pigsy is nothing more than a contrived annoyance. His inclusion lowers the actual gameplay itself as well. In the early stages of the game players access Trip's command wheel and work with her to distract, attack, and disorient their enemies. There are only a few commands at the outset and it appeared as though the game was gradually and naturally going to evolve this system in tandem with Monkey and Trip's relationship. This would have functioned in two ways: 1) more fun for gamers due to a wider variety of choices and depth with their AI partner and 2) provide a metaphor for the growing relationship between these two characters, that being the closer they become the more they can achieve together.

All of this potential is assuaged for fat-guy and dick jokes thanks to Pigsy. He never actually helps players progress apart from the occasional land-mine toss to clear some obstruction or stall some giant mech and even Trip suddenly becomes less involved in the adventure when he shows up. The entire focus of the game, which had previously been one of starting small so that you could end big, shifted toward: we've shown you all we've got, so we're going to stop progressing with the gameplay and try our best to wow you with these cooky characters and a big twist!

Not only would it have been more satisfying and fun had the progression system of moves and commands evolved in a deeper way over the course of the game, it would have also functioned better within the story, which is supposed to represent a human being's journey from point A to point B, a change in character. "Journey to the West" is the actual subtitle of the game and it never actually feels as though this journey takes place. It feels more like moving from level to level not unlike a Mario game. Each chapter is a little platforming/melee combat sandbox that's deceptively linear, and these sections are married by cut scenes that show the actual journey take place. Had I been able to ever actually drive Monkey's motorcycle through the wasteland I would have actually felt as though I'd taken part in this grand, epic adventure to the west, instead of being a passive observer taking no part in any of the actual work until I'm called upon for the most trivial of tasks.

The game quickly devolves in the final chapters due to Pigsy and halted gameplay evolution, which is a shame because the beginning of the game is truly spectacular thanks to an original story, interesting characters, fun gameplay, and entertaining boss fights.

But Pigsy is not the only problem. Up until the very end, the writers and actors and artists who had crafted this experience remain in the background and allow their creation to do the talking for them. But when Andy Serkis, the actor who plays Monkey, directs the game and...yes...once played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, plants his talking real-life head on a giant television screen and has a "deep", revealing dialogue with the other character he's actually playing and directing in the game, I shook my head in shame, for Enslaved became yet another video game that suffers from the epidemic of TOO MUCH STORY.

While the twist is certainly interesting and could work in any other video game or movie very well, it simply doesn't fit with the entirety of the experience Enslaved has to offer. It is like this strange little coda that has no place. Imagine watching Beethoven conducting one of his infamous symphonies, and then, at the very end, he turns around, faces the audience and then jerks off onto his own sheet music. He then pats himself on the back, as if this was the goal of the entire orchestra to begin with, bows, applauds himself, and walks off stage. That would be odd, wouldn't it?

Enslaved does something similar and why Andy Serkis makes himself the Beethoven in this scenario is something I find entirely off-putting. Perhaps he just really likes video games. But his presence, one that becomes overbearing in the final cut-scene, tarnishes the experience even more than the inclusion of Pigsy could. The reactions of the characters to this twist is at first interesting, but when it becomes clear that their quick decision is the climax, I was left entirely infuriated. I want to play the end of a story when I'm playing a video game, I do not want to watch it. And the ending is blatantly trying to be deep. Trip asks, "Did I do the right thing?" literally one second after very decisively and passionately making her choice. And we are left with two characters who are in the middle of nowhere, their love story incomplete, and some sci-fi babble, philosophical-heavy-handed posturing that previously had no place in this game-world. Nothing actually seems connected anymore, after this reveal. I am left thinking: What then was the point of their journey? Why would this ever actually happen? What was the point of anything? All of this could have been avoided had the story remained focus on Trip and Monkey and their need to keep on the move. Revenge is not always the best motivation for characters, especially not revenge that is caught up in a convoluted plot involving vague, unseen enemies.

I often think that not having any expectations will actually make me enjoy something more and judge it more fairly. What I did not consider is that this is actually true, but also with regard to things that fail. Not having expectations doesn't just mean you'll like something more. It also means you'll dislike something just as much if it falters and becomes bad. Enslaved is by no means a bad video game. There is too much good in it and the mechanics are too polished to ever label it as bad. So I can only best describe it as an unnecessary and unexpected let down.

If obnoxious characters and a bad ending are things that will spoil a gaming experience for you, keep clear. If you can see passed these things and just take pleasure in some solid bashing and climbing and sci-fi, then give it a try.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Strike that. Reverse it" A Re-Review of Dead Rising 2: Case Zero

A week or so ago I posted a review of the Xbox Live Arcade Game prologue to Dead Rising 2, Case Zero. I laid into it for having a time limit. I tore the game to shreds (I refuse to make a blatant zombie simile here the way some IGN or GameInformer reviewer might because I do not believe you to be an idiotic teenager who fancies himself a wit-master simply because he finds irony and puns amusing) because I believed the design philosophy of adding a time limit to the experience was at odds with what fun the game did actually offer. While I still stand by my point, in some ways, that time limits are usually unnecessary in video games and in no way provide a sense of suspense, and that I would much rather be free to roam around this little town chopping the undead to bits without a care in the world for anything else, this aspect of the game does not destroy Case Zero, or make it as deserving of my ire as I previously thought. I've come to accept and even appreciate the time limit after several play-throughs. Again, I'd prefer freedom, but you can create your own kind of freedom within the limited time if you simply manage your saves well. The time limit also adds a very arcadey challenge to the experience and occasionally it's nice to experience something that reminds us of yesteryear and provides us a mindless challenge, but albeit a challenge nevertheless. There simply needs to be a remarkable amount of fun to balance this out and make it worthwhile and thankfully there is in Case Zero.After going back, aware of the time limit and what the game offered, I was able to sink my teeth into this game and really come away with a gooey, gushing heart filled with joy. Would a winking emoticon be too obvious right about now?

Case Zero is definitely worth a look for anyone who would like to take a claymore to a crowd of zombies. I'm not going to tell you what happens, but I'm going to advise you to walk up to a zombie with your sword in hand and hold down the X button to unleash the strong attack. My jaw has rarely dropped in honest shock in my life. But it dropped when I saw what happens when you do this.

Saving strangers is obnoxious. The main characters movement speed is so remarkably slow I still suspect I'm missing something, that there simply must be a sprint button. Carrying materials to a work bench takes too long. Any NPC that isn't a zombie might as well be one, because the animations and dialogue are atrocious and there are noticeable bugs throughout. The clock makes no sense. Chuck's daughter is weirdly creepy. Discovering exactly how to find the pieces of the motorcycle is confusing. The menu screens are nonsensical. You are forced to read texts of dialogue that provide hints as to where survivors are located and where bike parts are (isn't it 2010? They couldn't record dialogue for the NPC's?), but if you do not manage to read it in the amount of time it's on screen then you are screwed. It's very easy to get lost and confused and not have any idea where things are. I bought Zombrex from the Pawn Shop, a pricey item essential to the completion of the game, but after I bought it I simply assumed it was now in my inventory because...well...that's what happens in video games. But not in Dead Rising: Case Zero. When you buy something it falls from a vent in the ceiling and lands on the floor of the pawn shop. You have to remember to pick it up to add it to your inventory or you're going to have to then re-earn all the money you just lost by banging open slop machines. Which is a giant waste of time as literally every second matters if you're trying to complete the game with an A grade. Controls are also nonsensical at times. I would grab a bin full of bike parts and not understand what I needed to do in order to push it. Finally I pressed X and it moved forward, though this didn't make sense to me at the time and B is interact with an object, and sometimes, depending on your orientation to this bin, you will pick up the bin in your arms as opposed to standing behind it for pushing. It's things like this that drive me mad. To help my fellow gamer, let me tell you that the common rule is B is interact with object or grab object, and X is use object. Also...you can pick up and carry the girl. There is a party girl you have to save from a crowd of zombies. You find her in an army tent and you have to guide her back to her friends at a bowling alley. There is nothing that indicates that you can pick this girl up. So I tried my best to keep her alive as she hobbled behind me through a series of zombies. I want to save you a lot of time and frustration and advise you to walk up to her and just press the B button. It also looks funny when you run with her in your arms.

Even with all of this...it's still completely worth your time. I haven't had this much fun just playing around in a game-world since Red Dead. That is not a comparison in any way. That is simply me saying I haven't had fun messing around with no purpose but to mess around in video game since the aforementioned masterpiece. While Case Zero is definitely contained and restricts the fun in many ways, once you play through it a few times you start to care less and less about the restrictions, about the time limit, and are permitted to focus on the more enjoyable bits of entertainment the game offers such as the achievement "Kill a 1000 Zombies". There's quite a lot to be found in this little town. For the most fun keep an eye out for "Moose Head" in the hunting shop (you have to jump from rooftop to rooftop to get inside), Claymores and shotguns (also in the hunting shot), two chainsaws, a horsey that you can ram through the guts of zombies, and a host of other fantastic little things.

Once you realize how many hilarious and brutal ways there are to kill these undead bastards you'll simply want to buy the full game. I know I will.

If you find yourself getting frustrated while trying to complete the main story, just start over (as obnoxious as that is) and try again until you get the hang of it, all the while chopping up the zombies to lighten the mood. If you have any questions on how to find where things are or the order in which tasks should be performed, just leave a comment or contact me and I'll let you know. I'm still working on a few things, but I could give a little guide that would earn someone the right ending and some brutally fantastic kills.

Can't wait for the full game!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Am Batman

Cold night. City looks good. Cathedral in the distance. Black spear stabbing at the sky. Overcast. Grumbling. Sparks of blue lightning to the east. When will it hit? The roofs will be slick tonight. Have to be careful.

Static in my ear. Oracle.

"Batman?"

"Yes?"

"Reports of a robbery downtown. Three armed thugs. One clerk dead."

Sirens in the distance. The sounds of my city. The din of controlled chaos: feet clapping on the the pavement, wheels tearing through glistening, wet streets, honking horns, angry mouths shouting vulgarities. The silent hum of the wind, washing over my chin, gliding along the cloth of my cape. How I love to hear it snap in the breeze, turn taught in my hands as I take off over the rooftops.

"Did you hear me?"

"Yes." The city distracts me. So beautiful. So terrible.

"I'm on my way."

Rushing through the sky. Grapple gun feels good in my hands. The grinding leather of my gloves. Never let go. Never stop. Running on the rooftop now. Big jump ahead. Too big to make. But I will make it. I will make it. Make it. Hovering now, arms spread, reaching, legs coasting forward. Hit the opposite ledge. One inch from a nasty fall. One inch from a common man's death. Over the skylight. Through the pipes up ahead. Cut through the construction site, yes, that's where the sirens are headed.

Drop. Down. Down, a down, a down, and the lights and the windows pass by. Eyes closed. So much better with eyes closed. Ground is coming. Need to fire the grapple. Need to swing to safety. If only I didn't have to. If only I could be falling forever, feeling the wind rush over my face and arms. If only I could feel the smack of the pavement. My body crumbling into red mist. If only I could feel the world stop without having to die.

Open my arms. The cape spreads, cradles the descent, fire the gun, swing to safety. Pedestrian on the sidewalk screams when they see me. Fear. Good. Smile at the fear.

There they are. Cops curving down an intersection, sirens wailing. Their sirens are a cry for help. They cannot fix this world. I can.

"Be careful, Batman."

Oracle. Barbara. Your voice. Will always love it. Always need - - -

The car. A red car. Thugs shooting from the windows. Too easy.

Swing above. They will not see me.

The roof is weak. Boots almost crash through. The driver jerks the car to the right. Up on the sidewalk. Stop this now.

Batarang. Slide to the side, hurl the blade into the front, right tire. The car lifts into the air, tipping over. Leap off, fire gun. Get away. On a ledge now, smiling in my mind. I feel my teeth smile. The car skids harmlessly into a newstand. A fire hydrant bursts. Papers and water, trickling down on the vermin. The cops pull up next to the car. Drag them out, cuff them, read rights. What rights do they have? The cops look up at me. Is that envy in their eyes?

Gone. Up to the rooftops where I belong.

"Nice work."

"Thank you. What's next?"

"Crime Alley. As usual."

"As usual."

Back to where it began. This is a good night.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Fools These Gaming Mortals Be - A Review of Limbo

"What?!" was what I said when the credits rolled on Limbo. And then, later, I thought very definitively: Fuck that game.

It was not a "What?!" as in "What was that about?" or "What did that mean?". It wasn't a "What?!" with regard to what happened in the game or at the end of the game. I wasn't confused or lost at any point. In fact I quite like the fact that the game never explains itself. You are given a title and the environment of the game and a vague goal and from that you can devise a pretty astounding and emotional story. I wish I hadn't read a synopsis of the game and I wish there wasn't a synopsis of the game because it tarnishes the experience.

I've never played a game that never had any kind of tutorial or introduced you to its world quite like Limbo. It's one of the best beginnings I've ever experienced and the manner in which the game ignores any narrative convention and instead focuses on an emotional experience rather than a coherent one is exceptional. I wasn't even disappointed with the actual ending. It's an excellent ending.

My "What?!" referred to the fact that the ending happened when it did. My "What?!" is more accurately expressed as "What?! I paid 1200 MS Points for this!" The game felt like a four hour experience, if that. The only reason it may have felt somewhat longer is that I have been ignoring it for the passed month, playing it periodically in frustrated little spurts, and decided today to pick it up for thirty minutes and play for a bit. And, without me even thinking it a possibility because I at no point felt like the game should be nearing completion, I beat this little, obnoxious game.

Limbo is critically lauded as the second coming of Christ. I've not heard one bad thing about it. Everyone is praising it. Normally I respect truly artistic and imaginative endeavors and sometimes I'm even easily convinced to like something simply because of its artistic cache (I use the phrase artistic cache somewhat ironically. I'll let you decide what I'm being ironic about). Case in point is a movie like Gerry. I love Gerry. But is Gerry good? I find it compelling. But I find it compelling more because it exists rather than its entertainment value. I think a part of me likes it because it's so desperately and clearly trying to be modern art on film. I find it compelling because it's daring and I like the cinematography and I feel an emotional connection to those two lost characters. But I wouldn't say that anyone needs to see Gerry. I wouldn't suggest that Gerry is entertaining or fun. And entertainment and fun is, I believe, an essential aspect of film and art and what makes a film good art. This makes me question whether or not something like Gerry is actually good art. There are some people in the film world who would suggest that Gerry, or a movie like it, is better than Back To The Future and that just simply isn't true.

How does this apply?

Gamers are trying desperately to convince the world and themselves that games are art. I've never understood why the convincing was quite so necessary and important (but not for the reasons Ebert suggests). I think the proof is clear and has been clear since the beginning. When you have artists doing stuff...the stuff they're doing is art. That's a rather "pedestrian" way of putting it but it's the simplest way to do so. The clearest example is in art-design and the actual drawings and art work that are created prior to the game designers doing anything. The people drawing those sketches are artists and their art work is then translated into a digital image. I'm not even mentioning all the other aspects that are clearly artistic in their own right that go into game making.

Of course games are art. Everyone knows it. The only reason there's a debate is because people like to debate. Apart from the legality of them being considered otherwise, I don't feel I even need to defend the medium because it defends itself, and I wish gamers and particularly game reviewers and game developers were as confident. If they were more confident I feel they would have a clearer mind. I feel they would not be so pretentious and easily fooled, like a film buff that thinks a movie like Gerry is a great movie. Developers and reviewers so desperately want to convince the world of the legitimacy of video games that they will applaud any example that supports their goal, regardless of the game's actual worth.

Limbo is clearly trying to be art. In many ways it is. In too many ways it is. The fact that the game makes its artistic goals overtly clear by being so purposefully unique means that the critics are going to hop on this little gem and raise it up as an example of video game legitimacy. A critic's hunger to demonstrate video games as art will cloud his/her judgment of a game's quality. Our desire to like anything that's deep and meaningful means we're likely to ignore somethings' failures and focus on its triumphs regardless of how astronomical its failures may be, regardless of whether or not it actually ignores what makes something good art within the medium it functions. We who are hungry for art will see only the beautiful art design, the gorgeous sound and haunting music, the frightening and disturbing imagery, and the evocative story of Limbo. To put it simply, we're blinded by the pretty colors and get all excited.

If I may be so bold I would like to state what I believe is the difference between good art and bad art. Bad art is art that does not fulfill its purpose or function properly within the confines of its medium. Good art does. Limbo is bad art. The reason Limbo is bad art is because while it gets atmosphere, emotionality, art design, story, sound design, and an assortment of other essential aspects of a good video game wonderfully right, it completely and totally fails with regard to the two absolutely most important tenets of a good video game: gameplay and fun.

Yes Limbo has some pleasurable puzzles. The controls are smooth and it's fun to watch your character get chopped to bits...the first few times. It's satisfying (kind of) to figure these puzzles out. But it's ultimately not fun for one very simple reason. The game is about failure. The game forces you to fail. And not just once. But repeatedly from beginning to end, Limbo forces players to die over and over and over and over and over and over and over...

It's not merely a situation like other games where the objective is clear but there are simply difficult obstacles in your path that you find a challenge to overcome (though you will encounter this as well). Limbo is a series of forced deaths, where there simply is no other option for a player to figure out a puzzle than to die repeatedly. Sometimes it's as simple as needing to leap to your death to see a few more inches of screen ahead of you to be able to know what the game wants you to do.

And so I played this game, marveling at the art style, the gorgeous black and white, the music, the pale lamplight eyes of my shadowy self, and the occasional flickering neon. But I was incredibly angry the entire time because all I wanted to do was enjoy the game and enjoy its beauty but the actual "game" part of the video game denied me this. When failure is not simply a possibility but the main function whereby I'm supposed to "learn" the way the game works I cannot have fun. When I play a video game I want to feel empowered and I want to have fun. I hate being made to feel like an idiot or a failure and that is exactly how Limbo makes me feel. I especially hate being made to feel like an idiot or failure as a result of a defect not on my part, but on the part of the poor game design or poor design philosophy. I have to deal with failure and disappointment in reality enough as it is. I do not need these failures metaphorically represented in a giant saw cutting me in half because I didn't push the block forward in time.

But I refuse to believe that Limbo is even going that far. I do not believe that the game designers are intelligent enough, nor artistic enough to have the following metaphorical purpose in mind: let us have our player fail repeatedly so that they will be forced to reflect on the failures of their real life. I believe only that the designers of Limbo wanted to make something pretty and something that has the appearance of depth, something filled with vagueries so that an infinite number of conclusions and interpretations could be made. This is vain. This is the epitome of pretentiousness and ironically enough, idiocy. I'm convinced that this is where these "artists" were coming from because of the fact that I had to push blocks, pull levers, and swing on little ropes for the thousandth time as opposed to having these traditional platform/puzzle gameplay aspects re-imagined.

The actual puzzles in Limbo are nothing new. I've done it all before and I'm sick of it. I don't want to push blocks anymore. I don't want to pull levers. I don't want to stand on pressure plates to make something important happen. I don't want to wait for the right time to jump. Am I the only one who is fed up with this mindlessness? There is nothing truly mind-bending or terribly inventive here and anyone that praises this aspect of the game is yet again blinded by the fact that these puzzles exist in a cool black and white world as opposed to a colorful one filled with pipes and pudgy plumbers.

This game is inevitably (and incorrectly) compared to the other high-art Xbox Live Arcade game Braid. The reason Braid is good art is that it does not ignore the fact that it's a game. In so many ways it is this pretentious highfalutin, neo-art piece that's way up its own ass...but at the end of the day it's a fun video game because it takes the idea of failure and changes it. It gives you truly mind-bending puzzles that seem impossible and uses an old gameplay feature like time-reversal in a new way that inevitably makes a player feel smart and rewarded. It's fun.

Limbo has the bells and whistles but none of the joy. If, in the manner Braid manages to work time-reversal and not-failing and learning from your mistakes, Limbo somehow managed to work its primary gameplay language of failure and death into the actual theme of the game then perhaps I'd be more willing to accept repeated death. But even then I couldn't ignore the fact that this game is simply not fun to actually play and is eternally frustrating. It's fun to look at. It has some fun moments if you're fortunate enough to not die. But no amount of pretty graphics or soul-enlightening imagery and vagueness will be able to convince me that being forced to run into a giant chainsaw fifty times is fun.

And it's not like I'm bad at video games. It's not like I was bad at this game. As I stated earlier the designers simply force you to fail. There is no other option. This, in my opinion, is a design philosophy at odds with what makes a good video game and what makes a video game good art.

Limbo is a great painting. But it's a bad video game.

Friday, August 13, 2010

In Defense of Trya Banks and The Destruction of the Human Race

Earth disappoints me. No. That is inaccurate. The only time this planet irritates me is when it decides to swallow up a third-world nation with a big wave or pile of mud or serves up a perfectly healthy baby to a ravenous Dingo. But even then Earth is not necessarily to blame. Who built those towns and cities and shacks where there are guaranteed future-twister-tsunamis? Who let their little baby wander around a wildlife preserve? Who decided to spell the word Sunamy with a silent "t". The human race. People. That's who disappoint me.

More specifically CNN.com disappoints me. Every day I log onto a computer which has CNN.com as the home website for the browser. So every day begins with the BP Oil Crisis, Obama's seeming failures, senators fucking up, humans fucking up by potentially sending Linda McMahon to Washington as opposed to the RAW backstage where she and her nefarious family belongs (the CT idiots who watch her ads and are swayed by her statements revolving around job creation and family do not know this woman and her kind. They have not watched wrestling for over a decade. I have. I know her. I've watched Vince McMahon and Linda McMahon shamelessly parade their family around wrestling arenas for years, creating stories that revolve around infidelity and even murder. I've watched her husband make a woman crawl around on all fours in her underwear and bark like a dog in front of millions of people and then make out with that very same woman on a Smackdown stage as Linda McMahon watched "comatose" from a wheelchair. I would rather let Arnold remain "in charge" of California and see the entire state, which I like, slip off into the abyss of the Pacific than see what Linda, Vince, and their troupe of roided up Wrestlers could do to CT and potentially the country), and all of these horrible things, some of which aren't even written about by CNN editors, are glossed over with what I wish I could consider an expertly honed sense of journalistic integrity and neutrality.

But when I see these headlines and dare to read these articles what I find is less expertly crafted anything, and more a hodgepodge of indifferent facts and poorly processed opinions. It's lifeless. Empty. And completely boring. News has clearly crossed over into the entertainment realm (turn on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News and you'll see enough flashy graphics to make the guy that labored over The Matrix credit sequence hang his head in shame), but the only time it's actually entertaining is when the talking heads or the talking articles aren't about anything that actually matters. The notion that "news as entertainment" is a new idea is inaccurate. News has actually always been entertainment. Yellow journalism filled the streets of our major cities for decades upon decades. Newsies like Christian Bale raced through alleys and dank sidewalks peddling papers, screaming headlines at the top of their lungs, handing over the black and white sheets which promised pertinent tales of War and Chaos. It was all so much more entertaining then. It was simultaneously more innocent and less innocent. Today's news tries to be entertainment by focusing stories on entertainment, as opposed to making actual news stories entertaining.

The only time today's news is actually entertaining is when you have two people shouting at each other over whether or not Tyra Banks is being a hypocrite for praising a skinny model.

And if you go on CNN.com as of 1:15 PM August 13th you will be able to see this.

What is this doing on CNN.com? Certainly it could be filed away in their entertainment section but it is on the front page. Sure, it's located in the likely ignored "Don't Miss" section below the two main articles, but it's still there. On the front page. I like to think that the people creating these news-journal websites think of their websites like newspapers. My knowledge of journalism comes mostly from All The President's Men and The Insider, as well as the two or three times a year I decide to pay attention to the news and fluctuate between MSNBC, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, 60 Minutes (which has gone downhill), and Fox News because I'm a masochist I guess. So I'm no authority on the subject but I do like the idea of it. I like the idea of honor and respect and the flying papers in a Daily Planet-like newsroom. Conspiracy and scandal and two young guys sifting through microfiche to bring down a President. I like the old-fashioned notion that this all started with pertinent news and ideas starting on something tangible and good...something good like paper. Yes. Paper is good. If we could develop a kind that doesn't hurt the trees, sure, I'd be all for it, but until then chop 'em down and give me a good piece of paper. A good piece of paper can and has and will go on changing the world. Paper is the vehicle of expression. Perhaps more important than paper is a pencil, or an implement with which to write. Because, like the cave men who expressed their minds in primitive paintings, eventually when the internet fails we shall be reduced to such simplicity again. This is why the most basic forms of communication shall always remain important and hopefully present, and why I like paper so much.

I like to think that the traditions of a "Page-one-story" are not completely forgotten by the web-designer and that she or he has designed their site with the tenets of traditional newspaper journalism in mind. I'm forced to doubt that this is even possible when "Dr. Laura apologizes for using the N-Word", "Tyra Banks praise for bony model shocks", "Women suffer more with pain" (Really?), "Navarrette: 'Terror babies' scare-tactic" are all headlines you can find on the home/front page of CNN right now.

Again, one could "easily" counter me by saying these are not necessarily the "headline" stories. Alright. What are the two headline stories then, the two big ones that appear in the two big boxes at the top of the page every single day? On the left, and in a suspiciously smaller box than the one on the right, is an actual news story: "Decision on bottom kill may come today". This is an article about the BP Oil Crisis. So what's the next story, in the much bigger, and clearly more important box on the right? "Real-life Eat, Pray, Love Stories".

Oh, Tim, c'mon, you're just being a gloomy Gus here. Clearly you're missing the fact that this is an iReport story so it's naturally going to be nonsensical pointless, celebrity related bullshit that tells you absolutely nothing important about the wars that are going on or the fact that the human race is nearing the brink of their demise.

No, I did not miss this fact. And I would say to anyone that would attempt to counter me about the merit of what CNN has on its front page by telling me that it's not meant to have merit, that you have simply re-stated my very point.

Whenever I talk about movies, video games, books, or television with people there always seems to be someone that says, "Well it's not meant to be that way" or "It's supposed to be that way" in defense of whatever it is we're talking about. So it's supposed to be stupid and that makes it okay? It's supposed to be bad? There are supposed to be beggars and loot players in Assassin's Creed and that makes it a good decision to have them in there? Andy Bernard was meant as a foil to Dwight and that makes his inclusion in the already perfect show necessary? Stephen King is making a point by including himself as a character in The Dark Tower series which means it's a good point? Christian Bale and Chistopher Nolan have a reason for the Batman-voice being so gravely...and because they have a reason at all that means we're supposed to like it?

Yes, it's an iReport story. But why is it on the front page? Why is it that every single day on CNN.com, in the bigger box, on the right, which is where people will be more likely to stare, is there inevitably, without fail, a story that involves celebrities in some way? Eat, Pray, Love is a fading starlet vehicle meant to suck some green out of the wallets of purposefully unsuspecting women who want to find themselves in the likes of Julia Roberts. Paraphrasing here: I haven't been single since I was fifteen, I deserve a year to myself to Eat, Pray, & Love. You're so pretty that you're able to have a boyfriend whenever you want and I'm supposed to feel sympathy and empathy for you?

Maybe it's a good movie and I may thoroughly enjoy it, but that doesn't change the fact that there are a batch of greedy white men sitting around a table rubbing their hands together like Bond-villains waiting to collect their cash as a result of this "good-decision" movie. And it can't be much different for Roberts who likely has an entourage of people telling her it's a "good decision" to make this, keep your face out there, remind people you're around. It's all so seedy and disgusting. And, for some reason, CNN deems it worthy of the front page. Yes, the article is not necessarily about the movie but it's inspired by the movie and it will attract people who are interested in the movie.

Yesterday the headline asked whether or not celebrities actually help causes and there was a big, beautiful picture of Angelina Jolie needlessly wearing native African garb as she longingly stared at a little boy playing with some rocks. The question was never really answered. I filled my poor brain with the letters and words and thoughts of that article and its creator and walked away with nothing other than despair. The same happened today when I watched this video:

http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/showbiz/2010/08/12/sbt.tyra.banks.backlash.hln?hpt=C2

The beautiful woman on the left is actually making a good point, the angry and loud beautiful woman in the middle makes her intentions pretty clear, and the mildly attractive woman on the right is hilariously clear as well. There's a point where the beautiful woman on the left states the obvious truth, that the clip is edited in such a way that you don't see what Tyra says next so you can't judge whether or not she's a hypocrite, and you can hear the angry beautiful woman in the middle become furious and try to stop her from speaking. You will see this everywhere on the so-called news. People shouting to stop someone else from shouting the truth. And it all devolves into something that is funny. But it's not funny in a good way. It's funny in the darkest way possible. It's funny only to those that have, at some point, had the following thought: Is it really that bad if the world ends?

That clip comes from Showbiz Tonight, so it's a news show format that deals exclusively in celebrity news. That's fine. I just don't understand why it belongs on CNN's front page.

I don't know what we can do, friends. It's around this point that I get all positive and suggest a call to action or something to potentially heal the Earth which we are murdering, figuratively with our idiocy and hatred and quite literally with our idiocy and hatred. But I truly don't know. This is how I feel after watching the news or experiencing the news in any way whatsoever. I know I am not alone. It's simply too frustrating and depressing (not because the stories are depressing but because of how vapid and soulless journalism now is) to be "in the know". I am forced into ignorance because to endure these seditious soundbites steals a bit of my soul. It harms me.

I don't want to say we should just give up, turn the TV or computer off, and find some other form of entertainment in the way of lovely video games, edifying books, or our trusty hands. Because soon our generation will be called upon to fix a few mistakes. And we must do our best to seize that opportunity for I am honestly terrified of the two generations that come after us.

Have you spoken to a teenager lately? We are certainly doomed.

Ah, well. Star Trek II and Batman 3 come out in the summer of 2012...so we'll get to see that at least...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Why You Must See Inception


This is not a review by any means. I just walked out of Inception and it might be the best film I have ever seen. It was mind bending in concept, flawless in execution, pitch perfect in pace, dynamically scored, wonderfully acted, and all pieced together by one of the greatest directors working today. I haven't felt this good about movies in a long, long time. This film is on a different level than anything I've seen. It challenges the audience but doesn't leave them behind, it holds your hand but runs too fast for you to keep up. Christopher Nolan has followed up his masterpiece that was The Dark Knight with his masterpiece Inception. This film is quite simply amazing. Beautiful. Perfect.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

More Than Just Sex

On June 13th 2003, as Paramount Pictures was engrossed in matters such as releasing Rugrats Go Wild in the United States, Germany revealed an atrocious situation arising within their borders. The announcement informed the public that German eurodance project, E-Rotic, had disassembled. Today marks the seven-year anniversary of this split.

Joining together in early 1994, E-Rotic, would be founded by Lyane Leigh and Raz-Ma-Taz. The group’s mission statement was simple- to provide the public with an onslaught of filthy sex and innuendo to the sound of highly danceable European-pop music.

With singles such as “Max Don’t Have Sex With Your Ex,” “Help Me Dr. Dick,” and “Fritz Loves My Tits,” E-Rotic soon found themselves on the Top-10 charts throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Later in 1996, France and Belgium would catch the E-Rotic bug too with fan favorite: “Fred Come To Bed.”

Despite the simplicity of saturating lyrics with sexual puns, E-Rotic managed to develop a game-changing structure behind their words, the intertwining narratives of reoccurring characters. Each player was first given an origin story, usually a single with his or her respective name in the title, “Willy Use A Billy… Boy,” (Willy fancied unprotected sex), “Oh Nick Please Not So Quick,” (Nick suffered from premature ejaculation), “Billy Jive With Willy’s Wife,” (Billy was an adulterer), etc.

From there, those characters were now accessible pawns to appear in all future albums developing a soap-opera-like essence to their existence. Dr. Dick would move in with a private checkup on Molly Dolly as poor Nick Not So Quick was left in the dust. Meanwhile, Willy Use A Billy would learn the importance of safe sex as his poor decisions led to unwanted pregnancies and diseases.

With the exception of one album, Thank You For The Music, (a tribute to their strongest influence, ABBA), the discography of E-Rotic proves they have stayed honest to their goal from start to end. Just browse through the album titles alone, Sex Affairs, The Power of Sex, Sexual Madness, Sexual Healing, Mambo No. Sex; hell, even their Greatest Hits compilation was cleverly dubbed, Greatest Tits. This very well may be the only group in history to ever reach a level of such immaculate consistency.

E-Rotic never quite made a name for themselves in America aside for several greatly watered-down Dance Dance Revolution tracks. This is unfortunate but should come as no surprise. As liberal and sexually explicit as the U.S.A. has become, we’re still ten blow-jobs and half a boner behind Europe. Don’t anticipate this changing anytime soon.

E-Rotic is the Freddy Got Fingered of music, you like it or you despise it, and nobody is in the middle on this one. As with all art, there should only be satisfaction held in this position. This group has managed to hurdle past mediocrity and land drastically on the side of brilliance and insanity- two fields that always overlap. Seven years have now passed in the world without E-Rotic and as much as I miss them; I could not claim their library to be anything but complete. Like an ideal television series, they left before the material got stale- and that’s saying so damn much considering the content they wrote about.

Here’s the music video to “Help Me Dr. Dick” for your viewing pleasure: