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.