Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Killer is Dead: The Man Commands

(((This is a crosspost from http://lastbossgamehaven.blogspot.com . Mostly just for my personal categorization. I could use some revision, and some extrapolation (especially considering I discuss the combat for only one whole paragraph), but I don't think I'll bother)))

It's curious the way critic culture has shown up in how we discuss games. All discussion seems to rest on the very base, a couple talking points and a score to go with it. Discussions of things like mechanics only extend to as far as "do I find them entertaining", and discussions of story or symbols reflects on narrative purpose or initial reaction. This boiling down is pretty much status quo for a large conglomerate sort of review site; as they don't need to analyze, part of their process is playing a game up for the market, not for the connoisseur (discussions of the capital value of art aside). However, when this reflects on the entire community, it seems to create a sort of egregore of assertions revolving around a lack of strict, critical thinking. The sort of thinking that Killer is Dead demands.

To build a reference, there's a game mode in Killer is Dead that has some people gasping.  Among the various murder sprees involved in the "story" missions of the game are a series of "Mondo's Girls" missions, boldly titled: Gigolo Missions. It's a simple mini-game in which you have to scope out these girls' bodies, until you've built enough of your supposed "pleasure" meter to give them gifts. On the surface, it's domineering, misogynist, and and bit boorish. Frankly, it's what you expect of games, but it's also expected as a bit of an unwritten rule. It's not given the focus of its own mission, only reflecting in singular moments (such as Kratos's various sex mini-games in the God of War series, the minor relationship management in recent GTA games, etc). If you're not willing to fully examine its purpose in the story, then it does have very very poor connotations, and even within the context it is very luring and extensive. However, it does have its arguments for necessity, and unfortunately it will force you to understand a significant portion of the story (obviously, as I see it), so if you came just for a review, ignore that in between the two pictures.

Killer is Dead's story is bombastic, in no minor sense. As a flat narrative, it literally goes to the moon, early and often. The game's hero, Mondo Zappa, is a hedonistic assassin with remarkable skill and swagger. Donning a clean cut suit and running through his hair moments before the major battles, he treats each moment as a virile encounter. Really, the notion of sex and desire meet the game at every corner, which is not that surprising, considering Suda's seemingly effortless ability to convey space in a Freudian or Lacanian sense (which seems to come with the territory of being a bit of a post-modern auetur). His (Mondo Zappa's) role in the game is performing the player's duty in an assassin organization, funded by the government and led by a cybernetic man, Bryan Roses. Mondo himself is aware of this role as an actor for the player, mentioning several times throughout the game about the function of an "action game", most specifically in relation to the major boss of the game, David.

To take a step back, it should be known that Suda himself stated the game was a step back towards what he did with Killer 7 and No More Heroes, although it'd be quite obvious from the entrance to the missions, complete with a sound effect straight from Killer 7, as well as a reemergence of the moon motif. In fact, Mondo's name itself seemingly references Flower, Sun, Rain protagonist Sumio Mondo (who further references The Silver Case). The relationship between these games actually plays a significant portion into the reading of the game as well as in all of these games, the main protagonist played a function for the player's interpretation of the game. In Flower, Sun, Rain, Sumio's search for truth and necessity resembles and questions a player's intention for solving stories in a game. In Killer 7, it uses the player's journey to symbolize, amongst a world of other ideas, how political hegemony can influence a person's perception of the "other" and the multi-fold nature of power. In No More Heroes, the perception and intersection of violence, power, identity, and sexuality, with some pretty hefty game commentary.

Under that idea, what does Mondo Zappa represent? As referenced before, it's (mostly) hedonistic desire, and its relation to violence and dominion. Throughout the campaign, Mondo is heavily focused on women, particularly in the client for the 4th mission, Moon River. In a mission that requires Mondo go to the moon, he accepts, even ignoring the lack of money needed for it, for only a kiss from the attractive client. Even when he does get money, the majority goes towards gifts for other women. The structure of the game is there to support your own search for desire; in a market appealing to straight men, the women are alluring, and the cheeky reactions from finishing gigolo missions are enough to even push your forward had you been resistant to their charms (the sound effect played after a successful mission is fantastic), and even if that's not enough, you get more realized awards, from something as necessary as the secondary weapons, to your upgrade material in moon crystals.

The game rewards you for doing this, but the story does not. The further you get in the game, the more you learn about Mondo, and his past. You learn that David, your foil and main enemy, was not only previously an employee of Bryan Roses, but is your brother. He is the player you are surprised you're not, a main only bent on physical dominion, introduced as the coup leader of the dark side of the moon (taken from Moon River), and latter known as the man striving for the Earth. He even attempts to hand you the moon as an act of possible gratitude, which you reject, leading to a bit of a two-fold reaction as he suggests you have to get Mika, your secretary-esque figure (whom here reflects the subversive power she had been given as a mere servant, and highly sensationalized trope, for you and the rest of the organization ring, in order to claim the sun). It's both suggestive of your implied desire for the worthless and unrespected (the sun, in an earlier mission, claimed to be worthless in regards to a mission where the organization doesn't get paid, again, however, slightly subverted as Mondo does not desire the sun), as well as suggestive that Mondo desires only the sensual. In the end, however, the darkness, that which has been empowering David, which has spawned the Wires, your main enemy, and which your cybernetic arm has been keeping out, engulfs you, as you claim the moon, and rebuild David's mansion, and are in turn claimed on a contract by Moon River.

The Killer 7 relation shows up once again in the meetings between David and Mondo, as they recall their games of chess, much like Kun Lan and Harman Smith of the aforementioned game. It has plenty of meaning here, becoming somewhat symbolic of the godly nature of the two characters, as well as deriding their intentions, specifically in how they relate each other to "action games" (chess, taken as a cerebral game is remembered fondly by David, while Mondo seems to ignore it completely; later, David suggests the room is illfitting of a fight, to which Mondo agrees, suggesting a more open and empty space)(for a more in depth dissection of the use of chess, try this). David and Mondo, as much as they are flawed and headed towards self-destruction, are simultaneously godly figures of larger, worldly conflict.

Mondo's mentioned hedonism is shown to be reductive in other ways, however, as your "targets" in the gigolo missions inject in the main missions, asking you to come back to them, that Mondo is a "cold man" for leaving them, begging for his affection again. His James Bond style conquest is visibly destructive, but self empowering in the dominion. Even the achievements of the game lean towards this Foucalt-esque deconstruction of sex and power, implying that when you "win their heart" you make them a "prisoner in body and mind". His desire for sex isn't so much of an objectification of women as much as it's an objectification of the act and it's role in society.

Suda's women are not necessarily weak, however, in the measure of the story. Though sexualized, as shown through the gaze of Mondo, the two women in Bryan Roses' Execution firm (I forget the official name), are able, and in many cases the superior to Mondo. Vivian, the second hand of the firm, is perhaps the most able. Powerful and intelligent, she could clearly be argued to be using Mondo in the same way he uses his women, although with slightly more subdued desires (that is, compared to his final "achievement" of gaining reign over the moon). As for Mika, the previously mentioned "secretary", there isn't as much understanding of her use, other than the success of it. Although she was unable to pass the test necessary to become an employee, she joins as a supposed "package deal" with Mondo, and takes place in the story. She performs an essential role with Mondo, reviving him should he fall (though Mondo tries to save his male dominion by counting it as a negative (it reflects poorly on his final score)), and even in her function away from Mondo's battle, seems able and successful in dealing with wires, resulting in the ultimate rejection of the darkness, becoming the ruler of the sun, itself giving life and energy, which she has in bounds.

One final woman plays a significant role in the story, in Dolly, the mysterious figure that haunts Mondo and Mika. Never sexualized, she is the figure that provides perhaps the most destruction and pain throughout the story, tainting his memories and attempting to corrupt him, and later corrupting Mika into killing their leader Bryan (kind of). Mondo's inability to deal with her may be the biggest measure of her usefulness as a foil to the "weak" women portrayed as objects for Mondo. In a game explicitly about sexuality, she becomes almost inhuman in her implied rejection of it, which is figured in her construction as mostly Wire.

However, for as flawed as Suda paints some aspects of a human female, his male description more subversively destructive. For example, Bryan and Mondo reflect fondly on a train of certain historical significance, stating that a man's desire is in the mechanical. I posit that mechanical is the literal translation for what he's saying, but he more-so means the "physical". As Suda seems to want to fully dissect hegemonic gender roles, he wants to enforce that men, perhaps more specifically men playing video games, do not actually care about emotion and expression, but only pure steam-powered reflections of brute force. The train here seems to provide a Freudian function as being a fairly direct visual as a phallic symbol of the supposed desire of man (I suppose a Lacanian interpretation of the game would be useful, but I'm not confident in my knowledge of Lacan, nor do I think I'd have the time to do one while this game is relevant).

In that "male desire", we see the death of others. The artist which is our first client is dead, the musician which is another client is dead, the scientist, dead, and so on. With this desire for the physical, for the sensual, we destroy the desire for that which is represented in "the mind". Perhaps this is the derivation for the name of the game, Killer is Dead being a symbol of the function of killing, but of more. In previous games for Suda, Killing itself is a symbol of game. Simultaneously an exploration of the violence that pervades games, as well as an ultimate of a desire of domination, Killer is Dead seemingly suggests that Mondo doesn't desire the killing, the means of his journey, but simply the result, his sensual passions.

Now, a directionless, stream-of-consciousness rant is hardly enough to summarize a story that is as extensive as this one seems to be, especially when I barely even reference half the missions, but there are some things of note here that relate to this general conception of this game being misogynist. For one, the game is not using the gigolo missions to their own end. The concept of these missions is to simulate Mondo's similar carnal desire. You're meant to want to "get these girls" in the same way Mondo does, and failing that, use them as an object in a similar manner (succeeding with these girls gives you benefits for story missions, for reference, check this Jason Rohrer piece about materialistic gains simulating personal relationships in games). It's not self-serving eroticism, and even for as lingering it is and as suggestive it is, it attempts to repeat the gaze of Mondo through the screen (note: you are literally looking through Mondo's eyes during these scenes, for the most part). Secondly, the reason it is trying to use it to simulate Mondo's goals, is that the game is very aware of gender roles, and their ties to a global hegemony. The game uses these missions less to show the woman as materialistic, and more to show the man as domineering. It's showing the interlinked relationship of sex and power, even done literally in something like the achievements, in which women you go "all the way with" are listed as "prisoners" for you. The game, as one of its major strokes, is attempting to deconstruct our perception of gender roles, even to the point of implanting sympathy in these girls which have no story relevance (Betty appears as a main figure in a mission, but only a DLC one). Throughout the games, even in the middle of gigolo missions, these girls beg you for affection, they want you back. The player is intended to disconnect at this moment. It's not played for humor, it's played in order for the player to step back and think about the futility of Mondo's actions and the consequences for it.

The majority of the rest of the game play follows somewhat of the same rules, leading towards the story in function, rather in intense interactivity. The roles of the assisting members of the organization play towards their roles in the story, and the manner in which Mondo attacks becomes less of a vessel for the story, and more a necessity of progression. While it may not be emotive itself, although it does feel somewhat virile, it does have a motivation for it, and is not really unwelcome in the story.

And it's not unwelcome mechanically as well. It's a mostly reactive hack n slash, making the attacks periphery to reading the battle, where dodges and blocks become your advantage (this is, I suppose, somewhat symbolic of rejecting the dark before defeating it, or also rejecting the dark being the same as defeating it). It results in a very fast paced system, requiring slightly strict timing to open your attack up. The secondary weapons apply enough necessity to where you need to do the gigolo missions, but are secondary enough that you don't rely on them. Your skills are limited, but useful, and nothing feels significantly worse than another.

The music is fantastic, as Silent Hill alumni Akira Yamaoka fills the atmosphere with gritty dark ambient, even vaguely noisy collections to create a brilliant interplay with the wonderful visuals. In a MC Esher inspired Alice in Wonderland motif, a jangly piece goes along with the heavily colorful and heavily shadowed playhouse to create an uneasy feeling, a latter level feels as outsider and otherworldly as it is, and the sound effects are crisp and cool (and one at the end of the gigolo missions is so fantastically cheeky and virile it's adorable). He seems to channel a bit of Masafumi Takada, the composer of Killer 7 as well as other Suda 51 games, which seems to relate this game to Killer7 even more, especially to the point of reusing (recreating?) some sound effects.

As an entire piece, I really adore what Suda's done here. I've always been a fan of his work; he's certainly one of these most intriguing designers out there, and here he's flying. It's not necessarily as self-reflective, and honestly self-serious as Killer7, even to the point where I was disappointed with the path he was going on until it all started to wrap up a bit better towards the end (of note, "wrap up" is relative there as it's still very mysterious and I certainly don't understand it completely... at least not yet). It really comes to a point that I'm disappointed with the reaction from it. Perhaps it's mostly Western, as this sort of over the top, post-modern game that intends to present serious topics with a bit of absurdest scenarios (Especially in the gigolo missions, it's wildly absurd) seems to mostly come from Japanese developers, but at the very least it's not really adventurous with their inspection of the game. It's a bit ironic, considering after Lollipop Chainsaw I envisioned Suda just moving to "Pinku" games that were nearly straight exploitation, which I still believe should happen with some game director, if not Suda, but the reaction that the sexuality involved is mindless and excessive is understandable, but ultimately disappointing. It seems to resemble something like Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm of the Senses, which uses a fairly famous Japanese story of lovers to tell an explicit story of desire and politics, using very intense sex scenes, even by today's standards. I almost feel it regressive to immediately knock it off as only there for the self-serving nature of it; for the enticement of young males, even if it feels that way for a long time, even after finishing the game in some manner, but it's erroneous to view sex as only sex, as in this game, not even death is only death, and really, this game isn't only what critic culture would see for a "game".

Friday, December 14, 2012

Assassin's Creed 2/Brotherhood/3 reviews

"Feels like I'm doing nothing at all -nothing at all-"

         If you find yourself on any game forum then eventually you will find yourself neck deep in a discussion about whether "games are art". It's bound to happen, it's one of the biggest discussions that modern gaming can't seem to shake. The actual topic seem to came out of (in my experience) insecurity from the gaming community. In order to reject the idea that games are for kids (not an idea anyone should entertain, especially now with the success of Angry Birds showing that even the old chess-playing masses can be enamored with a cute aesthetic and honest to goodness tight mechanics), they've built this narrative that games are for the intellectual elite, as they are art!. What follows is a desperate attempt to marry "art" and "gaming", finding any link of the two they can.

Firstly comes the idea that, "it's a human media creation that came out of imagination". That itself is sort of self-defeating on the idea that gaming is certainly "for adults", because it doesn't really define anything about it. If that is the case, all games are "art" as are all drawings, movies, music, etc etc, so in actuality, that argument is merely saying "this is a pointless topic", so good on that.

Next, the idea that "games are created for expression, and not function", but this itself is very highly contested. For one, games are sold for a profit, that in itself defines a function on the role of the creator. For two, sport and games of all sort have been around for as long as civilization has. It could easily be considered a biological function to have a desire for "fun" and game. The idea that game is built merely outside of function would seemingly define that games disconnect from what it traditionally means to be a "game". To make a game that rejects the need to have a goal that you have to better yourself to work to, to allow for the interactivity build itself as a mode of expression itself, and "fun" to be only an applicable function of that expression, not the central idea.

Lastly there's the idea that whether games are art is not the question, but rather if there are games that are "good art". This is the sort of Ebert argument that has people up in arms. That games are not art because the majority are poorly designed, poorly written, poorly expressive, etc etc etc games that simply fail to be anything "more" than the game they present. It suggests that even a symbolic game fails on the simple premise that the entirety of the game is not designed in a fashion that makes the entire piece work on it being a piece of expressive art. For example, if one were to argue there are certain expressive aspects of Bioshock, that the gameplay doesn't adequately support those aspects, the game fails to reach a certain "criteria" of art.

What this means for gameplay, is that every motion you make needs to have a function or feeling to contribute to an overall emotion. For example, Mario games are designed with such fluidity, that the majority of the game creates this almost meditative experience where as a player you can just sit there watching your character jumping and sliding, and that alone gives you a certain satisfaction. Resident Evil makes your characters movements restrictive, like a bad dream where you wake up to find yourself heavily constricted in your covers. Movements have an anxiety-inducing disconnect.

Assassin's Creed 2, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin's Creed 3, are all "not art".

The main problem I have with these games, is that they seem to actively reject having a player "do something", in order to create a false sense of feeling. As you run across buildings, you don't really feel the character running across, because you as a player are doing nothing more than running and holding a button. Mario jumps. He has obstacles he must encounter. Hitting these obstacles correctly gives the player a greater sense of satisfaction about the flow they create with the physics. It's a problem with Assassin's Creed that the majority of the game is centered around this rooftop exploration. Not only among the missions, but the entirety of the game is about giving you "more to find" with the city. You have feathers to collect, glyphs to find, almanac pages to chase, all of this is outside of the narrative, just giving you stuff to do as you walk around grabbing this and that.

The other big part of the games are the combat, where little improves. For these games the combat is largely mindless, and incredibly simple. Any discussion about the combat will come to the whole suggestion of "press counter button. bad guy dies". Really that is the way most fights will go. You'll be fighting a handful of people, and easily the most effective way, really the suggested way by the game, is to be defensive, wait for someone to attack, and then hit the psuedo-QTE counter button and get the kill or just health off if it's a bigger enemy. This is even further expanded on in Brotherhood, where after getting one kill, you can just jump from enemy to enemy pressing one button for a one hit kill regardless of their strength. It's so mindless that combat itself serves no purpose in the game other than being a time sink. It's not really a punishment for failing to stealth, because it's not making it harder for you. It's not making the game progressively harder, because you're rarely in danger of dieing in the fights. The idea is that you're supposed to feel like you have wonderful technique, timing up one button press and getting a fantastical cutscene kill, but it gives no feeling at all other than an annoyed tedium. (For what it's worth, Assassin's Creed 3's adjustments do a little better, making you have to press an additional button to counter kill, but it's still incredibly easy, to the point that starting weapons are all you'll ever need). Additionally, it's really disappointing that the only reason to change weapons is just to see different kills. The actual manner your approach combat is unchanged.

The stories of these games are also poorly constructed messes. There's a bit of cheeky hi-fi goodness to them, introducing you to historical figures like Ben Franklin and De Vinci, but it doesn't really seem to have much meaning other than to throw them in... not that that's really a huge problem. The problem is the convoluted story with an overdone premise and so many tenuous, unimportant ties to legitimately important things like religion, economy, free will and the like. It treats these issues with a amateur interest, with a biased, unexamined look at them that really fails to make any meaningful statements about them, and really throws them away for the most part. The other problem is how they seem to pander to reactions rather than to meaning. For example, there's a twist in Assassin's Creed 3, only a couple minutes into the story, which throws a wrench into much of the lore of the game, only to be explained away in the next minute of narrative.

The main draw of these games are the worlds, in fact I've had a discussion in which someone said (paraphrased) "if there were another game that allowed me to explore historical florence and boston i'd stop playing assassin's creed". I won't trash this, because the cities are nice and I enjoy their look, but for what it's worth, I knew I had had enough with Assassin's Creed when I saw a set of boxes in Boston...the same set I've seen in Venice and every other city in Assassin's Creed. It's fine, I like that on the basis of game design, but then I realized that the best of the cities are to look at, not for climbing. In fact appreciating the city seemed to come at odds of building a nice city to have a good flow in the parkour aspect. Minor complaint in the long run, perhaps just overexposure of these games.

And for what it's worth, the best portions of each games:
2/brotherhood: Glyph puzzles. Some were dumb, but I enjoyed them
3: Naval battles. One of the few times where I think the cinematic presentation of the game didn't come at odds with the gameplay.

No picture, i've spent enough time and am really just tired of everything Assassin's Creed, just give like, 2/5 or 1/3 or something like that for these. Neither are really "better" in any significant way, the changes are kinda hard to compare in some respects.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Xenoblade Chronicles: Review

 "I've played 6 straight hours without touching the main story"

        That is a piece of non-fiction. I did in fact play 6 or more straight hours of this JAY rpg, in which case I moved, in literal space, in the complete opposite direction of the main story. Probably would have played more if the realization that six hours is a long time and I like sleeping occasionally didn't crash down on me.This isn't unheard of in gaming, think to Elder Scrolls games and such, games that almost explicitly tell the player that the side quests are your real purpose, not the main narrative and progression of Main Player X and his/her cronies. However, this is something I have never encountered in a JRPG, outside of perhaps minigames that purvey the infamous "end-game" sections. The difference here is that I'm not near the endgame of Xenoblade Chronicles. This is mid-game and this is the same scenario that presented me in early-game. For as much as JRPGs and in fact this game in general present the main story as the main or even only motivation for advancement in any stance, this game provides a lot of "stuff".

The side quest in JRPGs normally feel like filler, probably are designed as filler too. Maybe you collect some this and that for some no-story NPC because they'll give you healing item X or maybe a weapon that is marginally better than the spiked bat your brute character has. The only thing about these is that they seem to be out of your way in almost every sense. The side quests are usually hidden, the items you get are frequently stuff that you wouldn't get on a normal playthrough, and the NPCs have nothing interesting to say. This isn't entirely different in Xenoblade, and just in passing you're sure to get plenty of quests filling your journal that just tell you to go fight some monster at some point, which I don't mind... good way to provide some challenge (if you fight the monster before you are hideously overpowered for it that is) and it's just a thing to add, but for the most part, your quests are just sort of things you'll get while exploring. If you kill all the bunnies that attack you on your way to story part Z you'll likely find enough bunnie feet to fufill the "get bunnie stuff "quest, and that's a charming little experience when in the middle of moving and exploring you get a nice "quest finished pop up" and whatever little story quip the conclusion screen has written down. But for those quests not among those mindless little "find X" missions you get the real heart of what this side quest fetishization really means.

What a side quest in JRPGs normally mean, again, is an item. The greatest bit of capital that comes out of these are literal capital... goods or gold that is meant to make the narrative just a bit easier, even if for a short time. For every part of your journey, you're building towards that know-able end. At one point, you're going to attack Kefka, or Lavos, or whomever, and you want to be ready! Xenoblade has a wonderful invention called "affinity". For each little named NPC you find a small biographical blip is placed on this sprawling web containing each and every cute little being the creators decided to make. They are all very simple, one like saying something like "troublesome boy" or "motivated artist" or "loves her daughter", and really that's as much backstory as you're given. Then all the sudden you talk to someone who mentions someone, and there's a noise a star and the wonderful feeling that you know these people they are talking about. This honestly doesn't get old. From the first time some women mentions that kid down the road is her kid to some weird elf hours upon hours later giving you a quest mentioning he can't choose between these two elf girls you've seen. In my 6+ hours moving away from the main story, I went back to the original city, and found out I had a flurry of quests I just hadn't done. In Final Fantasy whatever, this is pointless, and for the main story goer it still is. All I'll get is some gem way underpowered compared to what I have or some weapon that was obsolete hours ago. But for every little thread I create on that web and every little relationship I see flourish I marvel. It's fantastic, in all honesty. Each little NPC has no backstory but the one that you can interpret from their couple sentences of dialog and future relationships. You find that this kid wants friends and through the interactions you can find out these little kids personalities and beliefs in quick intuitive ways. As it goes, no one will come out and tell your who they are... you have to observe. These aren't Persona's social links or anything, but this is a fantastic way to create life in your world.

For some backstory, the world you are on is literally alive.. or was at some point. The "bionis" you live on a is a giant that once in battle with a giant "mechonis" that now holds these "mechons" in which you are in a sort of war with. They attack your city, and another (which leads to a charming little city-builder quest... there is a lot of "stuff"), and you're on your way. So in some ways it is you, the little boy from a destroyed city out to save the world, destined to a powerful weapon, we've all heard the story, the same writers have sort of commented on the idea of it in previous works. Of course, as a mid-game player, I don't quite know the full extent of story there's little to mention about how it goes, but I must say I admire these charming british kids. Your first characters, a triage of friends, their little stories seem obvious without them telling them, their relationships seem nearly set in stone. This older gentleman, a war hero, one of the three's older brother, seems half mentor, half friend, and as the story goes so do they, on their path to do a spoilered event that involves one of them and whatever (horrible at this describing a story without spoiling it I suppose). You keep getting characters and for what it's worth, they all seem quite genuine... even the comedic relief, pet-like character. Little in-jokes, like this pet being significantly older than anyone in your party with a bundle of children and his entire "prestigious title" a result of crushing debt. They are well devised characters, for what they're worth, and certainly nothing you'll groan about.
Oh and one of the first bosses defeated sends off with a fantastic piece of voice acting and professional regret. Lovely moment.

Of course, this is a game. It's also a JRPG, which implies a certain idea of gameplay, which is, attack, magic, level up and every problem is solved. The key is that "strategy" doesn't actually appear in that. It's not that I think turn based systems aren't strategic, of course they are, that's the appeal, but with the majority of JRPG, strategy is either incredibly plain, or incredibly forgiving. Aside from your Final Fantasy Tactics and SMTs of the world, this really doesn't change much. Most games get around a demanding fight with a clever levelling or class system, just something that adds variability at the least. More lately, it's been about action, instead of making something that demands planning, it's about making snap decisions. Xenoblade requires the snappiest. Each battle is as chocked full of as much "stuff" as the rest of game. Each attack pops a number and each attack is usually the result of an art popping up a status effect, and forcing your player to scream out its name. There's a lot of noise and numbers and words that pop up, and suddenly you realize you're not doing damage until you hit X move first, or you realize that half your party is about to die, or you're taken out of this wild fight with a glimpse of the future that your "destined" sword and it's power has provided so you can make a quick change to protect that person. It's clever and fast and even though it's not particularly demanding (well, sometimes) it's a system as charming as the lively world you go around, with all the little affinity stars popping up that you expect.

Don't really want to give it a score, considering I haven't finished the story and with all these gods and destinies and "changing fate" it could be something really genuinely great and who knows maybe it will last too long without much variability and idk. For what it's worth, the game I've had so far is fantastic and also average.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Empire: Total War Review

"'The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic' - Joesph Stalin, 2012"

        A quote that is constantly attributed to Joesph Stalin but I'm pretty sure he never said that. I don't think he even knew English all that well. I'd imagine that whatever he said was in Russian, and maybe the translation is so loose there's a connotation we're not getting. I'm sure he did say it in 2012, tho, and that's the important thing. I'm pretty sure he'd get a kick out of Empire: Total War too, because it's pretty fun for the most part, and he can have all sorts of fun out of crushing Georgia.

      But I'm not Stalin so I have to use this game for slight different purpose. I've always considered strategy, and specifically historical-strategy games to be in a unique position in terms of presenting an experience to the player as a learning and relational tool. Empire, as the name suggests, is about an empires at war; a hi-fi look at 1700 Europe (as well as the Near East, North Africa, India, and early Americas) with the ability to command your empire as seen fit. The relational tool comes with the construction and domestic issues of your nation, do you allow for revolution, maximizing happiness but possibly destroying your wonderful cabinet, or do you retain your monarchy, destroying the lower class but retaining world class military genius? Do you create hundreds of schools, furthering enlightenment thinking and improving market efficiency, at the risk of ensuring that previously mentioned reform, or do you keep an "underdeveloped" (in a traditional Western sense) mass that are brilliantly tactile farmers and iron workers. It's in these decisions that Empire becomes more than just a waste of time but a functional tool for understanding the struggle of power?

     However, it's hard to determine if it's a good one. The biggest hurdle, obviously, is the lack of supposed empathy. It's nearly impossible to feel for the unhappy masses in the game, because there's an obstacle that comes in designing a method of "feeling" for a person that has no effect on the way the game is played, and all "care" for them comes from outside of the player's function as a "player of the game". Perhaps, however, this is the idea. The death of a million is a statistic. You don't feel anything for the 11 million Hindustan residents, because they are faceless numbers. You make them happy, and you get a good number. You make them sad, you get a bad number, which could eventually lead to revolt. When it comes down to it, everything is subject to selfishness, because the games explicit desire is to take over X many regions and keep them held. All else done is a backhanded way to appease just enough to make profit. This is a slight problem with the design, because you're never encouraged to LEAD, only CONQUER. Everything is pushed forward in the game, with the only time for introspection coming in the period after conquering, while you conquer your next area, when you need to keep your new region just happy enough to not revolt.

     Regrettably, I have to cast that off as just a function of strategic, rather than the relational tool I suggest, but whatever, if you want to do that play Tropico, this is WAR man not just any war: TOTAL WAR. I played Spartan: Total Warrior before I played any Total War game, and if you know me I liked that game quite a bit. There was a heavy clash to every battle that escalated from the singular soldier to a battlefield of able-bodied men, all doing their damnedest to kill their enemy before their enemy can do the same. Perhaps what was most intriguing about it, was that that was true for every soldier in the game. From ally fodder to the strongest enemies, they worked with a motive that seemed wholly independent of a game program. If there was anything I was wanting from Total War, it was to see the kinetic impact of a battle and be able to get the same sense of urgency the warriors should.

   It succeeds, to an extent. When you launch a cannon shot into a castle wall, the enemy scatters around a bit to protect themselves from the onslaught. When you surprise a group of musketeers with cavalry that came from out of their sight, there's a scramble from them to keep position. When you clash head on some weak infantry with elephant mounted generals, watching the bodies fly gives you the same meditative moment of shock and awe that you can see from the battlefield. There are moments of tedium or frustration, but for what it is, the automated combat works wonders, and really provides great satisfaction for a crafty tactician.

     Basically, what I'm saying is that Empire: Total War is pretty cool. It would be much cooler if it was all online, with players as monarchs, cabinet members, generals, agents, and representatives of the peasants. Every action in the flowing market of the game has a recognizable affect on your populous, and you can feel some slight empathy for all under your wing (not perfect, Day Z still doesn't have a good community for example). When battles take place, you have the general talk about deployment, with every soldier given his own battalion he's responsible for. The general gets a top down view along with his view of his singular player (Wii U fo sho), and every player is given their view, a diagram of where they are in the general's plans, and a Mount and Blade style command of his troop (hot keys for simple maneuvers). Then, every individual players alongside and outside of their own troops with gameplay similar to Spartan: Total Warrior. And it'd be the best game ever.

But for now, Empire is pretty cool.


Friday, October 5, 2012

"I hate mainstream games" (and other such)

There's a lot of clamor on internet message boards about the sort of "hipster" "elitists" of music or cinema or any other media outlet, that cling to works for the simple fact that they are "unknown" or that they alienate specific audiences that they can project their superiority against. The backlash against this is usually a damnation of what is typically mainstream, because of the simple notion of the "least common denominator". Disregard that many of the people that lash out at these "hipsters" do have their own hatred of pop culture trends that supercede them, and just consider what truth there is behind all this. In fact, they may be absolutely right that pandering to the masses will deny a piece a certain quality, but it's worth a discussion what exactly that means.

All forms of media have a specific sort of objective quantity to it. Whether it's music theory and composition, film composition, prose, or in gaming, design theory, there's a way we can look at, listen to, or play a piece and recognize it as "good or bad" on the grounds of a good schema. If a piece of music irreverently, and absentmindedly jumps around the music scale, then we can say it's bad (for someone arguing the post-modern movements, that wasn't absentminded rejection of classical theory. They used it as much as those working within those grounds). There's a certain aspect of a game in which we can judge it to be "good". The obvious in unexpected glitches and bugs, all sorts of technical errors, but even design errors, faulty stage design, illogical enemy placement, so on and so forth, there's a theory to even creating the spacial reality of a game.

But then there's the preference. We all have a preference of some sort, whether it be genre, tone, mode of input, etc., there's a game that we can "feel" in a unique way. A game that we can play and enjoy more than most other people that play it. There's a personal reaction towards a specific story/scenario that hits you in a good light. That is where the argument of "pandering to the least common denominator" originates. The best example would be in the expression of music. Take, for example, something like the once-popular song "I hate everything about you" (idk if this is even the real name of the song and I don't care enough to check). Emotionally, it's plain and one-note. Everyone that listens to it will extract the same thing, this guy is infatuated with a girl that pisses him off/irks him or whatever. You may relate it to a personal experience, but if you do, it's probably very superficial. You most likely won't hear it and jump to the thought of "this guy GETS me", and I'd have to suggest that if you do, you're not very emotionally mature.

There is a reality an artist/craftsman must present when he creates his art. When you hear a song that gets you personally, you understand it in a way that other people literally cannot. The metaphors used in the lyrics may send you to a certain memory or feeling you know well, or the story involved may evoke an emotion that you can relate to in a way that is uniquely your reaction. But even beyond that, the timbre and tone of the music can create a sensation that you can internalize as a feeling you know. You may enjoy it or it may depress and discourage you, but it has an impact that is something you can relate to on a significant level.

Games have this. Game designers are no less inclined to present a reality in their art. When you control a character, when you hear his story, you have to be able to place that character in the story in a unique way that lets you understand his motives as a reaction of your own accord. This is why a lot of good art gets mixed opinions (aside from objective discussions, as rare as they are). Not everyone reads a person the same way, and if you create a character that CAN be read in more than one way, it's likely someone will be attracted, and someone will be alienated.

However, if you write the character to be read one way, with overly expressed, or mostly non-existent emotions, no one will be really attracted to the character as he is a character, and no one will really be alienated as not being able to understand it. Gaming is a business, you want to sell to as many people as possible. This is why characters like Kratos or Ezio or Master Chief aren't emotionally complex. You don't want to have to have players really question their motives and question their connections to your main player. Because of the industry of gaming, you have to create a character, almost from the outside in. you have to create a character that superficially appeals to a player: Kratos' lust for revenge and "EPIC SCENARIOS AND BUTT WHOOPINS" appeal readily to a player, without having to understand what Kratos (should) be going through. Ezio, first and foremost, looks really cool, and his narrative plays most simply off bland family values that everyone "knows" even if their family was less accepting of each other. In something like Tarkovsky's Stalker, we understand the characters on a superficial level, we know what the writer expects from the human condition, we know the stalkers devotion to tradition and values, etc., but throughout the movie, we have to question their motives and their ideals in a personal language. If you talk to two people about why the writer does so and so, they may not come to a conclusion. The thought-process of Kratos is pretty obvious: "you make me mad i smash". No one, outside of cynical blokes who read into what's not there, will dissect Kratos in any other way (am I pandering? I really challenge someone to argue against that without devolving to a bunch of lenient translations and horrible suppositions that are created for the sole purpose of reading too far into it).

So, there's something to be expected when it comes to things like GOTY or the Oscars or something: Personality is not universal. Your favorite game or movie is not everyone else's, and there are reasons for that beyond just "they don't think it's a good movie". The old anti-argument is always "you just don't get it", but in a way, it's true. If someone doesn't like God Hand (not a great example, because objectively it's a truly great game), I have to understand that they don't accept the reality of Gene and the rest of the game as I do. They may see the controls as, idk, too possessive, or too technically bound, or they may see the characters as lavish without intent. It's not that they are really wrong, it's that they don't read the game in the same language I do. When Movie A wins the Oscars, it may just be that Movie A is more readily personable than Movie B.

I don't expect anyone to read this (period) and change their view on industry or gaming hegemony or anything like that, but at some point we have to realize that the "elitists" have a point. You DON'T understand the game... not like they do.

Monday, August 27, 2012

You have a choice [citation needed]


Recently I've been on and off SMT: Strange Journey, a delightful little RPG for the DS (all these acronyms), but I've hit a snag. It's nothing difficult, in fact, it's not even a fight or puzzle or anything of that sort. It's just a simple question.

The entirety of SMT has built from the familiar D&D setup of the axis of good-evil and law-chaos, with the majority of the story and gameplay built around constructing yourself in the latter axis. "Demon co-op" occurs with a party of the same alignment, which usually dictates your party choice, and the majority of the (relatively sparse) dialog options revolve around establishing yourself in the axis. I'll be sparse, and try to be spoiler free, but as the story evolves, there becomes a pretty clear representation of law and chaos within your npc allies. From that, we get a brilliant "pleasant, morally sound authoritarian path" vs "chaotic, unpredictable freedom", in a very "The Grand Inquistor" Dostoevsky fashion.

So I've hit a branch. It's not a significant branch, it won't dictate the rest of my game in terms of what I "see" and not. It will probably change my alignment, but I can always move that back without too much time. The real problem, is that I just don't know where I stand. It's a relatively simple question, even when you consider the philosophical consequence, but it's one I can't come to a conclusion of. Do we need freedom if we have happiness? Is freedom worth it if it causes pain? So on and so forth.

On reflection of the issue, I have never had this sort of conundrum in a game. It's not that I've played no other, or even too few games that have branching dialog options, I've played your Bioware games and your Bethesda games and your Bioshocks and that sort, but I think there's a fundamental difference between what's going on with these questions.

For Bethesda, it's mostly just gameplay choices. Maybe you try to manipulate some karma system or some other morally sophomoric "good vs evil" thing, but for the most part, the questions are ones of the "experience". Rarely does it demand you to think beyond "what would i rather see" or "what would I rather this character do" and of what does, it's mostly "should I kill this innocent person just to be an ass or should I just let him keep his money" (or what have you).

I have to suggest it's the same for Bioware. Clearly, just by the narrative presentation, and the discussion of the developers, they are intending a sophisticated narrative, one with deep lore and relatable characters and emotional scenarios, but I think when it comes to the dialog choices, it's still much about "what you want to experience". In fact, they even explicitly tell you what is "renegade" and what is "paragon" (or light side/dark side or whatever the moral "gimmick" of the game is). The questions aren't about establishing what YOU the player is, it's about what you the player want to create for you the actor. Some choices will have you questioning your choice, but as far as I can tell, they are more of "who do I want to live/die" or "who do I like more" and stuff like that. It's rare (if not non-existent) that one of these choices probe the player's motivations.

Bioshock, however, does try to make this sort of decision. With the harvesting of the little girls, it's an extreme example of self-importance or making it hard on yourself for the sake of a "probably lost cause". The problem here is two fold. For one, it's a not at all a translatable example. In light of the Randian world of the game, it's likely that it's intended to be a play on the importance of the self in light of institutional errors and such, but it comes off as "be a monster or be a nice guy". The second problem is that the game, even from the start, destroys the supposed advantage that sacrificing the lil sis should give, as a "gift" is proposed by the lil sis' leader of sorts. It could work on a philosophical point, that even when you believe you're supporting yourself, you would be better supported helping the community or whatever, but it weakens the aspect of a point. So maybe it's not intended to be a significant choice, but it fails on a moral level.

I have to posit that those are overly-simple, pointless questions. Strange Journey has several similar to that: Shaking someone's hand, helping a demon in need, so on and so forth, but as it constructs itself in the game at large, we can develop a number of things. These questions formulate what the demons are, what they represent. They help identify your (the player's) persona, giving a dynamic example of a question of life (such as the "what if you find out your wife is a robot?" question for the application of free will). There may be a need for something like Bioware narrative or Bethesda narrative, they lead to comedy, emotional despair, accomplishment, etc., but with the discussion of "what does it mean for a game to be art?" shouldn't we be critical of what it means to be questioned? Shouldn't games be more interested in what they are asking the PLAYER? They want us to want to BE the main character, but aren't we just making the main character in our own narrative light? When do you feel something like Mass Effect probes you to question yourself, rather than your actor?

I think I'd like to hear comments about this, so while you think of an answer I'll be thinking about what to do with myself in the Schwarzwelt.

Friday, July 20, 2012

ICO: dissecting Ueda and his original masterpiece

As I'm banned from the boards (again!) I think I should feel compelled to do a post and with yet another assurance that The Last Guardian is still being made, perhaps now is the time to do a retrospective of what I've previously considered and possibly still do as the greatest game created.

To start off, here is a short list of games I've seen Ueda mention as games he's enjoyed or influenced by or some such:
Another World
Half Life 2
Burnout 3
Katamary Damacy
Portal 2
God of War (why?)
Obviously several of these... in fact almost all of them have no influence on him in direct relation to ICO, but certainly the character of his tastes will come out in his games, and certainly when he constantly derives his taste to making games that he "thinks he wants to play".

Another World is the most obvious influence of his, and because of this it will also demand the most attention and time so it, along with Half Life 2 and Portal 2 will be discussed last so first let us consider one of the choices that shall seem quite oddball considering a game that first and foremost is a quiet, subdued adventure: Burnout 3. A quick look at reviews for this high-octane racing game shows a dictionary of buzz words even more buzzy than high-octane including "intense", "electrifying", "heart-pounding", and "adrenaline pumping" (inducing?, not sure of the best wording), but of what I've seen a curious lack of "kinetic". The kinetic impact of Burnout is certainly what sets it apart, in a game thriving on ridiculous, nearly uncontrollable speeds, the focus on the crashes creates an odd moment for meditation, watching an opposing car float helplessly through the air in an oddly serene moment of destruction. The real satisfaction of such a moment is not the visceral destruction-porn of watching mangled bits of metal and perhaps the unconscious notion of "perhaps there's an equally mangled body in that mess", but rather that connection between cars. In that brief moment right before it all slows down you can FEEL the kinetic impact of the cars. In a fantastic moment of immersion, the game is able to send an impossible experience to the player. Perhaps this is more reasonably discussed when talking about that brilliant TISH that comes from sinking our sword in the giants of Shadow of the Colossus but, although less prevalent, it is an important aspect of ICO. The most notable aspect of ICOs combat is really how clunky little ICO is with his weapon. He holds the sword as if it's far too heavy for him, and swings it like it's his first time using his arms. There is an intense lack of power in every motion you have during combat, even if you're comfortable enough with the game that you don't really have a problem dispatching your foes. This is only highlighted in the actual impact of your swings, or perhaps the lack of. Especially with your measly stick in the beginning stages of the game, your attacks are met with a seeming equivalent to a wet fart of a sound effect, and very small push of the enemies momentum in the game, but it's a perfect feeling. The small movement is enough to feel like you have a fighting chance of surviving, but still too weak too feel like it's something you can ever count on. While most games, and certainly Burnout are about the power of such events, ICO is magnificent in conveying just how weak and insignificant you are.

Which brings to mind why Ueda would ever be interested in something as agonizingly masturbatory as God of War. In God of War, there is no connection in the battles. Your swinging swords simply slice through even  the most dense of enemies, and after the frequent QTEs, you're left with a gruesome, pornographic scene where you typically detach some part of the monster, eventually its life and all those health and magic blobs, and a lingering fascination of that violence (why is the center of the new God of War's marketing focused around the visceral treatment of its monstrous foes?). Perhaps his interest is only one of that fascination, and this is a case where his taste is escapism from his norms, or perhaps it only shows up in very vague moments (The adventurous, expansive arenas or the occasionally intriguing camera angles as it sweeps through those areas or the admittedly nice animations captured by it). Who knows, but I suppose it is always interesting to see a designer enjoy something so far off from their own creations.

And for something that is in fact, so close to their own creations, the coup-de-grace of this piece, ICO and Another World. For those wondering where Half-Life 2 and Portal(2) fit in, I would need another article perhaps, but Eric Chahi's brilliant Amiga masterpiece provided the framework that those games operate within (and actually a lot of interesting parallels in relation to the first Portal game). However, the parallels between ICO and Another world are not only more numerous, but something that has been explicitly stated by Fumito Ueda. Just going by the plot narrative of the games, they are incredibly similar: After arriving in a new, unfamiliar world our protagonist, after miraculously smashing his cell (yes yes yes, this happens several minutes into Another World rather than the start like ICO), finds another jailed prisoner (also of note: the familiarity between Yorda and the Another World cell-breaks). Nothing is really known or understood between the two, no familiar language, no familiar origins, and because of such, almost all interactions happen wordlessly. Shortly after that meeting, you pick up a weapon and go along your way, constantly juggling battling foes, solving environmental puzzles (occasionally with the help of your fellow prisoner), and eventually, and likely several times, get separated from your only friend. After some intensive exploration through this land (several similar locales, to be honest), the journey culminates in the desperate escape, with an uncertain end.

In terms of gameplay, the parallels come up again. The world of ICO is relatively linear, but it's never obvious where forward is. This is displayed more symbolically within Another World, curiously playing on the spacial metaphor of "right = forward", and toying with how you're forced to determine what is progress. With ICO, that same interplay and experimentation is in spacial limbo, and seemingly every environmental puzzle is just a new arena the game forces you into (much like the chapter dissection in Another World). The combat of the two games can be considered polar opposite, ICO relies on powerless defensive swings to eventually dispel your enemy, Another World relies on a one-hit gun built on its own system of building shields to provide yourself with a window of opportunity to kill your foes. The common theme is the very frantic feel it gives you, however. Because you have a one-hit-kill, does not mean you go looking for enemies to kill, it only means that that second you have to charge your shield becomes a horror moment beyond compare. When any hit can kill you, defense is paramount. ICO's defensive swings, in this light, are really more of a shielding blast than an aggressive attack to the enemy.

But more important than all that, and the guiding feature of that I suppose, is the feeling you get. In both of these games, you are lonely. Horribly, uncontrollably lonely. It's a new world, an environment you cannot even really comprehend, and you're left to escape it without anyone. When you do eventually meet your ally, it becomes even lonelier. No understanding between the two, no development within interactions, and the only real reason to connect in the beginning is only out of empathy or need. As the game advances, and as you learn to protect one another, and help one another, you get a sense of what help you can provide. The curious relation, is that it seems to be flipped in the two games. In Another World, your ally has all the power. You can defend yourself, and you will be there to help him, but more often than not, it's your ally that comes in the nick of time to pull you out of danger. However, there is a moment when this changes. In a short moment when you can imagine escape in your reach, your ally is caught by guards, forcing you to come from behind and quickly deal with that threat. Then, at the end, when it seems your ally is gone for good, you  allow a chance for escape, only for your ally to come back, and pick up your near-lifeless body for the dramatic escape.

In ICO, you have the "power". It's up to you to keep Yorda alive for pretty much the entire game, and it's always you that comes in the nick of time to pull her out from the shadow's portal. However, the great moment of role reversal comes towards the end of the game, as you have escape in view, and a weakened Yorda tripping behind you, the bridges moves apart. In possibly the most dramatic moment in gaming, you leave the exit behind you, and, mimicking Yorda's leap into your arms and let her catch you, her becoming the savior, and your the princess lagging behind. This does fail, however, not really suggesting that she is incapable of helping, but rather a cooperative failure, as it's now up to ICO alone to escape the castle, and save Yorda. This is the moment of despair, as you find Yorda, stoned up and seemingly dead. This is also the moment of redemption, in the other most dramatic moment in gaming, you defend her body once again (with this incredible background noise). It's actually hard to describe this scene, and it's really the most personal. Perhaps it's built on selfishness, perhaps on intuition, perhaps on just the outwardly hope that something will work to bring her back, but, alas, she come back in the very end, to pick up your near-lifeless body for the dramatic escape.

But most importantly, these two games are very austere and encompassing. The way that Chahi and Ueda discuss these games like this, is almost similar as well. The games themselves, in their eyes, are not even really represented with what is on screen, as Ueda says (rough paraphrasing as I'm not going to look it up again) "Games are about presenting a space that a player can buy as real, and to convince the player that they are having a personal experience", or as Chahi says "For me [Another World] does not exist. It does not exist on the screen, but it exists in the player's mind". To them, games are only as strong as what can be imagined from them. A game has to have a sufficient manner in letting a player imagine from them. The ability to superimpose their dreams and nightmares into the reality that is being supposed in their screen. If there's anything to cherish about ICO, it is that it is a game that allows you to accept everything that is going on, and forces you to make relations within it. While ICO grows to love his silent ally, we feel the same connections. The game holds our hand as it guides us along on this expansive journey, and as we help it with the puzzles, it helps our loneliness and need for comfort.