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...