This is the end… my only friend, the end

2001 (1)Everything most eventually come to an end. Sometimes, it’s an excruciatingly long winding one, as is the case with Metagame. Between my PhD and classes, my newspaper reviews and occasional talks, the book I can never seem to finish writing, and wanting to continue playing these darned horrible videogames, time just slips by. But the past, as they say, is history. The college paper is gone and with it my column, blogs are out-of-fashion, too wordy for the twit generation to read through, and soon I’ll have to find a proper job to make ends meet, which inevitably means an even lesser disposition to write here. And now, on top of all this, I’ve been invited to write for a column in the Portuguese IGN website, which will likely drain all my videogame writing desires. This is not final, I’ll still be around, just don’t expect anything more than the recent paucity.

Ever since I started writing here, I did my best to try and convey my feelings and thoughts towards this new medium. In the many years spent writing reviews, I grew up as a person and critic, and learned considerably about videogames and games and art. A great part of that maturing experience results directly from all the delightful interactions I had with everyone who read and discussed these themes in the blog and outside it. A big thank you is naturally in order. Even though all were important to me, some will live on in my heart and deserve special recognition: CruzifixioCes, my number one fan and fellow J-RPG lover, José (or is it sir Joseph now?) for showing me that impeccable film taste does not always translate to videogames, Jorge S. for the best and most relentless of though-provoking discussions, Jaggie on account of his ever insightful perspectives on art, manga, anime and all things Japanese (and for being the most ingenuous of my critics), and last but not least, dieubussy for being the best mentor I could hope to find, a true reference in every respect. To all these friends, I send my love.

To those rare unnamed few who enjoy my writings, I can only bid a hearty farewell, and shamelessly publicize my current ventures, inviting you to befriend my facebook page (if you haven’t already) which features (but is not limited to) English posts on Metagame topics, and to those who are fluent in Portuguese follow my new bimonthly column in pt.ign.com/behindmedia, where hopefully I’ll continue my writing in true Metagame spirit.

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”

Hope to see you soon,
Rui Craveirinha

“Silent Hill 4 redux”, a P.T. review

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“Silent Hill” is the masterpiece they just can’t leave alone. After a decade of watching Konami lending its masterwork title to be used and abused by merit-less and unskillful western developers, one naturally becomes distrusting. Promote a new Silent Hill with an actor from a popular TV show that has no inkling of resonance with the game series; a filmmaker who, qualities aside, is not known for either the particular surreal tone or the finer nuances in narrative and aesthetic sophistication that elevated Silent Hill; and a game director whose previous collaborations with other works that not his own have ended in disaster, and whose very stylistic trademarks (design maximalism, adoption of an anime aesthetic with particular emphasis on its crude brand of humor) stand in earnest opposition to the essence of Silent Hill… promote a new Silent Hill thus, and one confirms the now constant suspicion that every new Silent Hill will come as another nail to stick into the proverbial coffin.

Which is why P.T., the interactive teaser where Konami chose to encapsulate this idiotic marketing ploy is so puzzling, because it is the finest videogame experience to be associated with the Silent Hill name ever since The Room. It is perhaps fitting that 10 years after the release of the last ‘true’ Silent Hill, Konami chose it specifically as the basis for this singular demo. Not that it is likely this was a decision meant only to honor its legacy in celebratory fashion; the growing popularity of first person horror games that lived of scraps of that singular fabric that made Silent Hill the best of its kind – Amnesia, Outlast and even that Slender thing and its clones – makes the return to first person perspective seem thought from a marketing angle (and the since released trailer, showing people’s ‘reaction’s’ to the piece indicates as much). But no matter, for in execution, P.T. honors Silent Hill 4′s design, its tension and mood, whilst reusing much of its iconography with the intelligence I associate with its original authors.

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The Team Silent level of quality craftsmanship, present in the superb use of the FOX engine, and the demo’s distinct Japanese dream-logic structure, are both crucial elements of SH that are here recuperated and that had hitherto been missing from the series. The audio-visuals are some of the finest seen in this novel generation, and the end result feels as unsettling, scary and ominous as the best Japanese horror. That said, the team behind the demo – mostly comprised of Metal Gear developers from the FOX team and other Konami staff – may be technically superior, but seem to lack the high-brow artistic vision that the finest notes in the Silent Hill milieu have achieved. On a conceptual level, the demo is too much Alternate Reality game and too little psychological meditation, and while it reuses several of The Room’s finest scare tactics, it never delivers anything truly unexpected or avant-garde; in fact, one of its most obvious detriments lies in its lack-lustre musical score and the graphics’ grounded FOX-engine aesthetic, both too somber and predictable, especially in the surreal excerpts, lacking the brilliant, erudite imagery of Team Silent (the best we get is a direct quotation of Lynch’s “Eraserhead” – too little, too obvious).

Being designed by Japanese was enough to make P.T. an object worthy of admiration, surely the finest of its genre in many years, but the lack of true authorial direction is too evident in this palate opener. Understandable given its nature, but a true Silent Hill game will need more. Which is where the names of Kojima and Del Toro come in – will they provide artistic vision for this team? Will they truly helm the project, or is this precisely what it seems: a marketing push? If so, who will steer this new boat? Is it a Japanese or a Western developer? Too many questions and uncertainties to be sure, and a teaser remains just that: a teaser. There is no indication that P.T. was created or designed so as to have any relation with the new Silent Hill beyond its marketing, and so one can only wait that the positive reception to the demo will be taken into consideration when producing the new title. Even thus, P.T. has the merits of making my PS4 finally seem worthy for giving me this small glimmer of gold, and for making a cautious optimist out of me. Before playing it, I had nothing but despise for Konami’s treatment of future iterations… now I have a tenuous, melancholic hope. Whether this distant hope leads me further down into despair or rapture, only time will tell.

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“In my restless dreams,
I see that town. Silent Hill. You promised me you’d take me
there again someday. But you never did.”

Here’s hoping that promise may finally be fulfilled.

Videogame Utopia: Passage Denied, a “Papers Please” review

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“Papers Please” is the sort of independent videogame that we need. Being “independent” means nothing if the creative leeway this status affords does not translate into a design that is personal, expressive and uncompromised by commercial goals. Incidentally, most hits in this dubious category are either designed with market considerations in mind, or derived from videogames that were, therefore replicating these values (“Super Meat Boy” or “Fez” being classic examples of this). “Papers Please” fortunately sits on the other corner of the indie spectrum. Following Bogost’s procedural rhetoric and seemingly inspired by Frasca’s “September 12”, Brathwaite’s “Train” and Molleindustria’s socio-political essays, Lucas Pope’s game is driven by a need to design games’ whose very systemic properties are meaningful enough that they can be explored semantically by the player. A game with a message or a political pamphlet made mechanical construction perhaps, where one can enjoy playing a game that boasts all its functional traits – goals, rules, rewards, penalties – but whose simulational qualities are inscribed with rhetoric on real issues.

In this case, the artifact addresses the day to day work of a checkpoint officer in a totalitarian state. In a dreary, grey and oppressive country, where the only remnant of color is propaganda red, you’re tasked with deciding whether or not people can pass customs, perusing their papers to see if they are in accord with the tyrannical laws of the state. You sit in your metal cubicle, standing in front of an endless line of desperate people attempting to enter, only to then dive into a monstrous amalgam of rules, documents and detection tools that tell you who to pass and who not to pass. It takes real effort to become adept at carefully verifying the validity of passports and safe conducts, searching for all sorts of inconsistencies in their documentation, checking if all procedures are correct, and in extreme cases, go as far as perform cavity searches of suspects to check if any contraband or weapons are being transported.

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An endless parade of bleak visages and broken spirits pass you by, most of which you’ll find with a fake passport, illegal immigrant status or what the state calls a terrorist. At that point you have the power to let these poor devils pass or reject their entry altogether, maybe even have them arrested. In some cases, breaking the law is the moral thing to do – desperate wives separated from their husbands, unemployed men seeking work, freedom fighters seeking to end war and dictatorship – you’ll encounter many instances where you wish to let these people go. However, whenever you fail to comply with the rules – not spotting an illegal, missing a step in the directives or rejecting a legal entry – somehow the state magically becomes aware of this fact and charges you, either with a fine or worse (this is, from a simulational point of view, rather incoherent, and a lax design decision so as to make the rhetoric stick out). To build pressure, you need the money from your work pay to make ends meet and provide your family with food, heat and medicine (in a bit of design reminiscent of online propaganda game SPENT). If you don’t work diligently, fast and according to the law, you and your family will suffer, eventually ending the game in tragedy.

The simulation drives home the dilemma of a man living in a totalitarian state: live poorly and let your family suffer whilst keeping your ethics untouched, or cave in and play the game (the real and metaphorical one) as it pressures you to, by becoming a cog in the state machine of repression and violence. Different balances between these two approaches lead to different outcomes, and though the ends are many, few (if any) have a bright epilogue. It is a very coherent work in its political message, and the experience can often be so bleak and morally abhorrent as the author set out to accomplish. But, like all the artifacts in this procedural line, it is also a title that suffers from a blunt agenda, as on-the-nose in its discourse as can be found in other media, the subject shouted at you with no nuance.

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Also questionable is the choice for Soviet iconography aesthetic dominating the visual and aural style of the game, making it too easy to dismiss it as a critique of totalitarian states such as North-Korea or China. Cold war anti-communist propaganda is old and retreaded ground, not particularly challenging to devise or interpret. What value is there in being brashly outspoken against left-wing dictatorships? It’d be far more interesting to note that democracies (such as the United States) also present the same fascist tendencies in their customs office processes, but sadly, because there is no symbolic ambiguity or subtlety in its rendering of what constitutes a totalitarian state, wider-reaching sub-texts are never contemplated. The game just never troubles itself going that extra-mile of innuendo and expressiveness that might make it an interesting essay on dictatorships (a brilliant and recent example of how explore the subject would be Robert Edwards’ “Land of the Blind” film). As per tradition, videogames tend to have this paternalist tone that drives authors to feel the need to spell everything out very clearly for their audience as if they were very dumb (another case in point of this flaw would be “Gone Home”), leaving very little for us to dissect or conjure.

Truth be told, such is not a big issue… in fact, considering how most games are so bereft of any expressive punch whatsoever, its lack of textual density is easy to dismiss. Its greatest detriment is actually that the game can become quite entertaining to play. An artifact about such horrors should never become enjoyable; it should always strive to be as appalling and repulsive to players as possible. But that’s not what happens when you make a game with challenges and goals and structured conflict and well-balanced mechanics… it becomes engrossing, and soon transforms you into that dreaded customs officer that is trying to be super-efficient and amoral and cold and cynical in his work, only you have ‘fun’ while doing so. And so, though the mechanical underpinning of the game is analogous to the emotionless customs drones that audit entries, playing the system becomes as enjoyable as a round of “SimCity” or “Civilization”. As such, from an ethical perspective, this becomes a very questionable design. More naturalist representations of your foul deeds (something very difficult to achieve on a small budget) could go a long way in making you feel more empathy with the human element of the story, but we believe the fault here is systemic and ideological, not just a matter of execution.

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Simulation titles that follow Bogost’s line of understanding of what constitutes a videogame tend to have this problem: they believe in a utopia where systems and rules and mechanics can be full of meaning, forgetting that as humans, we are not Cartesian machines, for we also think with our senses and emotions and understand the world by touching, seeing and hearing it. Because of this, disregarding the sensual dimensions of videogames in favor of their computational complexity always results in this dystopia of rote intellectual artifacts incapable of eliciting powerful emotional resonance and true introspection. “Papers Please” deserves applause for bearing one of the most honest authorial voices of the independent scene of the past year, and for at least having an agenda that goes beyond mere enjoyment in a medium obsessed by it… but its provocative theme demanded a sophistication it does not know and an ambition to go beyond this adolescent notion of videogames as amusing procedural manifestos.

“The Shadow Line”, a “Spec Ops The Line” critique

“Spec Ops: The Line” is a title that came out in the slow-churning furnace of mid-summer, singled out as a point of reference in its ephemeral release period and greeted with a consensual, though mild applause. The community’s response mirrored the shy reply that eccentric, heterodox or otherwise intellectual games garner, usually before a sufficient passing of time leads to a less compromised validation and subsequent rise to cult status. “The Line” got a sympathetic look that felt muted by the ever-looming fears of public reproval given the game’s lack of conventional appeal. Since magazines and sites survive thanks to their role as buying-lists, when journalists find off-beat titles they seek an equilibrium between honest criticism and cynic consumer reporting, muddling the two in their texts, so as to remain as balanced and unanimous as possible. Take Edge for instance, its online review opened with this paragraph:

“This could well be one of the most subversive shooters yet made. Nonetheless, Spec Ops: The Line deploys the crude ordnance of thirdperson carnage to persecute more formidable targets: war, soldiering, American interventionism, and the depiction of those things within videogames. A game that understands its own ugliness and base urges, undermining the thirdperson shooter even as it adheres to its formula.”

Other outlets followed a similar line or reasoning: “a game rife with contrast, an utterly commonplace third-person shooter, but narratively, it strives to raise philosophical questions and put you outside of your comfort zone” [Gamespot], “trying to have it both ways, – Gears-flavoured stop-and-pop action one minute, The horror, the horror, the next – but the end result is interesting in its internal conflicts, and bold in its willingness to embrace its own confusion” [Eurogamer]. After the almost art-criticism, comes the consumer angle, bent on addressing entertainment ‘value’. Edge claims that shooting lacks a gimmick to make it interesting (read ‘fun’); Gamespot mentions issues of imperfect movement, meaning control was not satisfying to play; and most reviews mention trial and error grinding and a lackluster multiplayer.

The point here is that though the game was undervalued from a consumer angle, it was acclaimed in terms of its cultural value, at least by the most successful opinion-makers in the community: “A striking vision of a devastated Dubai plays host to murky morality and banal gunplay in Spec Ops: The Line” [Gamespot], or “The first shot has been fired in the battle for a smarter, morally cognisant shooter” [Edge]. More even, those critics that do not need to abide by commercial strains began to dissect the game profusely, and albeit some being more positive than others in their analysis, a strong sense of respect for the game and its aims – as a shining new example of rhetoric on war and war-games –  is felt through and through [see Critical Distance for a nice sum-up on the various articles]. Brendan Keogh is writing an entire book on the subject [you can buy it here, and read a meaty excerpt here], his view being that:

“It is a significant game, and that is why I am writing this. (…) So what follows is not a defense of The Line nor is it a praise of The Line. It is simply a reading. It is an attempt to pick apart this game from start to end to try to understand just how I was so powerfully affected by it. For me, The Line made me question just what my responsibility is as a player of military shooters, and the following chapters are an exploration of how it made me ask those questions.”

It is based on this perception of the game, as promulgated by the videogame community, that we expect the game to become a critical reference in the near future (if it isn’t already). What this text aims then, is to vehemently demystify the aura of progressive discourse which has become associated with this title.

There is no more succinct way of describing the newest iteration of “Spec Ops”, then placing it as an attempt at adapting “Apocalypse Now” into the videogame medium. The game has been officially pegged as a novel translation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, which is the book Coppola based his operatic war opus on. Conrad’s work has become a seminal, canonic literary work of fiction, one that has gained critical and popular acceptance throughout the twentieth century, being the subject of several works in different media, from radio, theater, film to television and even opera. Why not videogames? However, as far as a translation can go, its formal references and stylistic choices are so influenced and infused with the spirit of Coppola’s interpretation of Conrad’s words that it would be equivocal to claim really as a novel interpretation of the source material. Of the multiple direct references to Coppola’s work, we can include: the backdrop of a war (as opposed to Conrad’s colonialism), several lines copied directly from the film, a similar introduction sequence (see the video), a radioman character whose physical likeness, voice and behavior emulate Hopper’s role (see figure below and video), and most relevant of all, an appropriation of a frantic and hyperbolic tone on the nature of evil, depicted as chaos and madness, which is the iconic trademark of “Apocalypse Now”.

Coppola’s film stood firmly on the wane of the 60′s social revolution and the 70′s depression climate. These decades were a pivotal point in western societies, when idealist notions of peace and love and hope brought a new age with a new utopia for the masses, heralding liberation from orthodox social constraints – family, marriage, work, entertainment and art were all born anew to clash with the old. Sex, drugs and rock-and roll was the mantra of Woodstock, signaling the time when happiness became synonym with pleasureful consumerism. Meanwhile, this hope clashed with a grim realization that the new North-American society lived in constant fear. JFK’s assassination brought the menace of shadow governments and their plots, Watergate showed the true face of corrupt politicians, an oil-driven economic recession incurred in massive unemployment, and the ghost of the ever-looming communist menace of the Cold War always hanged around, all too haunting and oppressive, almost as much as its physical manifestation in the insane Vietnam war… unfathomable in its design, yet absurdly deadly. Reality was fragmented and people were confused, sentiments of freedom and imprisonment, love and war followed quickly in succession. “Apocalypse Now” is, above all, a journey through those decades of dreams and nightmares, as we go from nonsensical drug-fueled euphoria on the battlefield, all surf’s up, pyrotechnics and Playboy bikinis, to a descent into the heart of darkness of the jungle, where war and cruelty become real, now borne into the flesh of Col. Kurtz’ monstrosities. “The Line”, especially in its narrative layer, follows these coordinates, simply propelling similar feelings of hope and anxiety to our present, addressing 9/11, Iraq, the complexities of a post-modern world at war, and how the new digital hedonist culture perceives this.

Conrad’s book, however, presented a voyage to the darkness of the human soul during the age of colonialism; it was a sailor’s mournful and poetic reflection on how European empires were built, and how civilization was brutally imposed on barbaric lands, an act of savagery as great as the savagery it meant to domesticate. Nature was the true darkness, both the nature that lives in its rawest, purest form in the untamed jungle, as the nature that lives in Man’s heart, always waiting to come out and spray all forms of aggression and destruction. Few of these elements have direct connections with the “The Line”, which presents its “Heart of Darkness” as an LSD trip to a middle-eastern war, nightmare and dream shot with black humor, rock music and cynicism galore. This is “Apocalypse Now” brought to the XXIst century. If any more evidence were needed that the game is trying to revel in the spirit of the film, we have only to dissect the licensed soundtrack that evokes the iconic rock bands of the Seventies – exchanging “Apocalypse Now’s” Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Doors for the likes of Hendrix, Deep Purple and Martha Reeves – and adding the ephemeral taste of erudition with a hint of opera – so where once was Wagner’s “Walkürenritt” (Ride of the Valkyries) from “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung), we now have the proxy of Wagner’s Italian nemesis, Giuseppe Verdi, with “Messa da Requiem’s” (Requiem Mass) “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath), coincidentally, one of Verdi’s most feverish and bellicose excerpts of music. Once established that the game is really adapting “Apocalypse Now”, and that “Heart of Darkness” is an incidental reference (perhaps so for matters of authorial rights and licensing costs) a more accurate interpretation of the work can ensue. But this is not to say that there are no direct bridges to the book, only that these are few and usually insubstantial; take for instance the renaming of Kurtz to Konrad, K stems from Kurtz and Conrad from Joseph Conrad, of course, a weak pun that is nonetheless symbolic of the relevance of Conrad’s name for the game.

Beyond formal considerations, and strictly thematically, “Spec Ops The Line” is still about a “Heart of Darkness”. Only the darkness here is one far more conventional, a sort of down-to-earth interpretation of “Apocalypse Now”, with none of the ambiguity, existential profundity and far-reaching considerations of the works the game bases itself on. “The Line” deals with that murky line that separates high morals from base human behavior, and how war strains the tension and inner contradictions between human’s predatory animal behavior and our highly intellectualized aspirations of empathy and communion. The story follows Captain Walker, a self-righteous officer of a Delta Force unit in a Dubai war, on a mission to investigate the dealings of a rogue battalion led by the charismatic leader Coronel Konrad. Apparently seeking to solve the humanitarian crises of famine and thirst provoked by unrelenting sand-storms and the onslaught of war, Konrad established a despotic rule driven by brutal force and uncompromising law, a new society where survival is uphold by the harshest of contingencies, and where trespassing is dealt with torture and death. Despite the army’s brutality being meant to safeguard human life against the gruesome rule of Nature (both the environmental and the human, as per Conrad), civilians start to amass in violent militias seeking to overthrow the army’s impromptu government and restore freedom. Complicating matters further, it also happens that this rebellion and armed by CIA operatives who have vested interests in seeing no witnesses of the war remain alive, lest news of human rights violation and the horrors of the war reach the outside world. In the midst of this Palestinian-sized disaster, Walker finds himself the target of both factions, seeking to understand how the war came to be, and trying to save what’s left of the refugees. It doesn’t go very well, as he is soon forced to face choices that defy all ethic boundaries. At these points the game mixes two different narrative set-ups: some of these dilemmas are catch 22’s with no true alternative whilst others are choices between lesser evils. This effect heightens a sense of confusion that lies at the heart of the captain’s role, as well as the haziness of the distinction between good and evil in a context where death hangs at the balance of every split-second decision.

The third act of the game reveals new light over the proceedings in the Dubai war, with several surprise reveals in the form of hallucinatory sequences. In these, Walker is confronted with the horrors of war, combating the ghosts of those he killed and watching the gates of hell open before him [see the Sauron-like imagery of hell in the picture above]. The final stretch in the game also sees the act of killing made truly violent from the perspective of Walker: what had hitherto been natural murders for a jar-head, suddenly become remorseful acts of spite and vengeance, both towards himself and his opponents, all turned to cogs in a perpetual machine of death. He rants and blasphemes out loud as he kills in ever more violent ways, for the first time seemingly aware of his condition in a theater of war as an instrument of death, cursing all yet never shirking from the the role that destiny gave him. Whether physical or mental or spiritual, it is pretty clear that Walker is in a personal purgatory. The shift in tone, from realism to the pseudo-surrealist, is based on the interpretation that the entirety of the story-line is supernatural in nature, as one of the creative leads at Yager suggests: this purgatory is diegetic (see the interview).

In the very end, the final horror Walker must face is that he is Coronel Konrad. Konrad was a mirror-figment of his imagination, a creation he conjured to dissociate him from his own atrocious decisions during the war. The idea of Konrad and Walker being the same – as in sharing similar outlooks on the savagery of Nature and the hopeless, inescapable amorality in human living – is a primary part of interpreting the book, and with some nuances, the film (there, Capt. Willard kills the Kurtz-God to avoid becoming completely like him). In “The Line”, we go from a spiritual, symbolic, subtle idea to an extremely literal one, trivialized as a supernatural twist in a psycho-thriller. The peculiar embrace for such an unorthodox mechanism can be attributed to a search for sheer surprise factor, and maybe also even an obligation to reference, out of popular taste, David Fincher and his “Fight Club”, the ultimate icon of post-2000 anarchic visual aesthetics in media. The film’s ending is herein mirrored: there’s the man with split personality where one psyche points the gun at the other (which is the same as pointing it at himself), and there are the surroundings, a high-rise with a view over the city; even the segue is similar, destruction spreading across an urban landscape in a myriad of explosions, all blurred with edgy montage and camera filters. We live in a society that shirks from symbolism, transcending meaning and ambiguity, and where materialism, both physical and fictional and intellectual, is granted precedence over the elusiveness of spirituality. The focus of the grand reveal seems, basically, that Walker being Konrad could not be so subtle to the point of being poorly understood by the game’s audience, and so had to be made a smashing realization of a physical reality – Konrad couldn’t be merely an ideological kin to Walker, he had to be Walker. This, just as the non-figurative interpretation of ‘purgatory’, speaks a lot about who the designers were trying to communicate with and their cultural pot of references (surely not to readers of the novel).

It must be made clear though, that the lack of nuances in the narrative is the least of our concerns, as it is a hallmark of most games. The thornier subject is that “The Line” was created inside an industrial production context, more so, inside a long standing franchise (the original “Spec Ops” is a 1998 tactical war game for the PC), and how that fact impacts the agenda for the game’s interactive experience. We have had little contact with the franchise in the past, but what little we had, with the first Playstation editions of their work, left an appalling impression… not quite the suitable background to adapt either of the two artistic masterpieces that it wishes to base itself upon. Further, both Conrad and Coppola were authors in their own right, having to pay comparatively little attention to commercial needs of producers and distributors (Coppola became famous for this attitude, to the point of costing him the commercial collapse of his Zoetrope studio). We don’t believe there is any authorial vision possible in the realm of “The Line’s” production, given first and foremost that there are no known authors in Yager Interactive to begin with. The Creative Leads of “The Line” are Cory Davis, who also doubles as Design lead, and François Coulon, with narrative in charge of Richard Pearsey and Walt Williams. Their resumes speak for themselves. Coulon worked on many generic games, mostly in production roles, with only a scant note on his curriculum mentioning participation as co-creative director for the first “Splinter Cell”. Cory Davis was in charge of level design in “F.E.A.R. Extraction Point” and “Condemned 2” and had miscellaneous development roles in “F.E.A.R. 2”, and Pearsey worked with him as a writer for “F.E.A.R. Extraction Point” and “F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate”. Finally, Walt Williams is story editor for 2K games, which includes editing everything from “Bioshock” to “Mafia 2”, though as a writer he only co-penned the unfortunate sequel to “The Darkness”. None of the works created by any of the members of the creative team, are indicative of any visionary author, artist or designer, no matter how repressed and well hidden in the dark, depersonalizing halls of a developing company such as Monolith Productions. You would hardly expect an essay on war from authors whose gameography features an extensive catalog of generic shooters that boast violence and militarism.

2K Games, “Spec Ops: The Line” publisher, is not without its merits as a mega-publisher, having bet on some creative, less standardized titles as “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” and even sui-generis AAA titles such as “Bioshock”, but these are specks of sand in a vast sea of published titles with no artistic value. So what we get is a normal publisher intent on making money, hypothetically willing to bend one or two rules of the marketing books, and a creative team whose experience is in standard, by-the-numbers, action games. “Spec Ops” is a brand associated with the tactical shooter genre, games where war is a means to entertainment, and Yager’s background is from “F.E.A.R.”, a game where violence is also a means for entertainment. Were these the right people in the right context for a game that seeks meaningful debate on the subject of war? Doubtful, to say the least. But let us assume that Yager really wanted a mature, artistic game, that posed a provocative and groundbreaking take on the subject – 2K games would never risk a AAA budget on such aspirations. “The Line” got released because it still was, at heart, an entertaining war game with mass appeal, its goal to sell millions.

Which brings us to the inner crux of “Spec Ops The Line” – its genre roots. Whilst we concede its creative pursuit may, hypothetically, have lied in an attempt to convey through the videogame medium similar themes as those in the works it bases itself on, no matter how inconsequently or unpreparedly, the fact remains that the interactive make-up of the game was never conceived to house such preoccupations, for there is no clash with previous shooters, nor is there any true subversion of the team’s previous creations. “The Line” is no better at addressing war than “F.E.A.R.” was. In game design terms, it is, no more, no less than a standard competitive third-person shooter. It inserts itself neatly in a long lineage of the military action genre, a genre whose overtly declared mission is entertaining by providing players a sense of empowerment through annihilation of opposition, gratification by fetishization of war and its props, chaos and destruction and death turned to mere fireworks spectacle. “The Line” is an ipsis verbis refrain of “Gears of War”, a game whose main author is straightforward in his unpretentiousness and rudeness, as well as its Reagan-era rhetoric of hedonist, mindless destruction and obscene brutality. Cliff Bleszinski, at least, is sincere:

“In many ways, I’m a child of the ’80s. I was raised on movies like Predator, Robocop, and even goofy ones like Cobra with Sylvester Stallone or the ones starring Arnold [Schwarzenegger]. I think those types of things represent a time, an era when people just loved that sort of mindless action. If you take a look at a film today like The Expendables—people love that. Gears represents a modern-day feel of that sort of nostalgic time.”

Yager’s work is an almost perfect copyist assignment of that design, with only one small variation– all characters die easily in “Spec Ops” as if to underline human frailty (as opposed to the brawny space-marines of “Gears of War”). This imposes a tenser rhythm to cover-combat, and this high-risk, high penalty flavor results in the grinding trial-and-error that was criticized in some reviews. Apart from that inexpressive detail, there is no subversion of the shooter genre, unless in those rare instances where the game becomes a series of narrative choices. Only in the final moments of the tragedy, when both Walker and his buddies start voicing the horror of war (whilst the player continues the game-loop of carnage), does the visual and aural anger manage to dampen our sense of accomplishment at conquering another opponent. But by the third act, this point goes unheard, lacking the strength to force a reassessment of what is always first and foremost, a cool game about killing cardboard soldiers. It’s laser tag through and through, and no amount of cutscene brooding can force us to reassess that.

So, what we get is a game that is supposed to question the morals of war, that plays out as a normal power fantasy, complete with grand set-pieces of destruction – straight from “Call of Duty”, another game lacking in pretense of seriousness – where there is little, if any, tonal underpinning to question the amorality of it all. More so, players are, again following the genre’s stipulations, commended for their ‘acts of valor’, with slow-motion death-cams heightening gorish outcomes with a snazzy bang, and banal icons of achievements and progress bars flying through the screen, signaling player proficiency in the art of killing opponents with specific guns and techniques. The game tells you that head-shooting your opponents is a goal, and thus morally good, worthy of praise and better when done in a hip way. Where is the subversion? This is Bleszinski’s design drive in a game that claims to wish the exact opposite. “The Line” plays like a game adaptation of “The Expendables”, not “Apocalypse Now”. Of the latter it sees only its explosive satire and glorified violence, failing to re-work its subtleties and sub-text and aesthetics. “The Line” is not a game about war, it is a game that wears the pretense of war, and in its heart just wants to patronizingly entertain an immature audience. For our role as players has not changed, nor has our emotional experience: in “The Line” we remain fashionable killing machines.

The location’s characterization, which has been praised in most reviews, actually further enhances the vapid stylization of violence. Whilst technologically competent, this Dubai never feels like a real war scenario, it is distant and voluptuous and unlike anything in the wild, dense and inscrutable darkness of “Apocalypse Now’s” jungle (inspired by Werzog’s brilliant masterpiece, also a kin to Conrad’s novel, “Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes”). Here we have a dreamscape, a fantastical place where light shines as only possible in a computer screen, all warm reds and digitally-enhanced oranges, textures made to bloom in a soft glow, all as unrealistic and tasteless as a heavy-handed photoshoped photography. Ruins are shiny and the sand lush; the glassy phallic towers of bygone capitalism, though destroyed and falling brick by brick, remain a symbol of the glorious, opulent past and never the dreaded present. It’s another aesthetic non-sequitur: to beautify everything in a game’s visual landscape, whilst portraying the most horrible and visceral of themes in front stage. The stylistic choice is reminiscent of another son of Reagan-era Hollywood violence, Michael Bay, the uneducated MTV-junky with an unhealthy, quasi-sexual fascination with explosions. His signature hot neon-gold hues, ADD edits and slow-motion kill-cams all make an appearance at some point of the game. In this search for digital beautification, the art direction went as far as resorting to lavish art-deco for the destroyed interiors, basically assuming that irrespective of subject or tone, for a game to shine visually it must cite “Bioshock’s” destroyed Rapture.

Another crucial aspect that reinforces this trivialization of violence, lies in a total lack of care in making soldiers and victims seem human, unique, borne with the flame of life, rife with empathy and suffering. You get the same generic looking soldiers that you execute thousands of time in an endless bog of deathly repetition, and as always you play the hard-chinned American hero, buddied with a black negro with a conscience and a redneck racist that keeps spouting patriotic bull. The writing is not Conrad caliber, that is sure, and though the models and animations of the main characters are above average – emoting convincingly for most of the story – the non-playable characters are as forgettable as in any shooter. How are we expected to cry over nameless NPC# 192, when his model is reused over and over and his face is completely covered, with no inkling of a soul in either his eyes or behavior? The formal qualities of how human life and suffering are depicted is symptomatic of a total lack of sensibility to these issues. One of the main scenes of carnage sees the death by phosphorous burning of hundreds of civilians. The game then presents center-piece a burning pietà [above is the in-game depiction, and below is the equally artless painting that Konrad does of the same scene], the image appallingly crude, in a style that evokes more easily horror tropes as expressed in “Fallout” or comic books along the line of “The Walking Dead”. What almost saves these scenes is the sound, which is immensely revolting in of itself, with human screams and flesh sounds so accurate that it almost makes you feel the emotions which the game occasionally wants to achieve. Impeccable voice acting from main actor Nolan North in the role of Walker (a risky cast choice that pans out), also helps establish an emotional gravitas that is otherwise absent, but that is the extent of positive adjectives we can afford in a game whose overt aspirations consistently outshine their execution.

There is a tenuous line separating two very different theses that can explain the purpose and creative pursuit of “Spec Ops the Line”. One states this is a game that is genuinely pursuing a thoughtful discourse on war and human ethics, based on a literary masterpiece. That the actual game misfires and shirks away from this grand vision, is an issue of constraints of the medium, its vocabulary and socio-economic context, which are not prepared for a true breakthrough – this is the view in some critical articles. The alternative we propose, is that those aspects of the artifact which are viewed as interesting and a sign of maturing of the genre, are merely a cynical cover to garner attention and praise, in a game that was never conceived to be anything but a commercial product, dictated by an author-less industrial production machine. This does not invalidate that some parts of “The Line” really are an adolescent attempt at promoting a post-modern discourse on war. Well, perhaps not war itself, but maybe the way our consumerist-hedonist society sees war through videogames: fun-gameplay that fantasizes death as a positive goal, whilst reality is muddy, cruel and immoral. This is possible, but if this last rhetoric point is there, then the game truly is pointless: for it embodies the worst qualities of the artifacts it means to criticize. We don’t need a self-conscious “Gears of War”, we need a game that really criticizes the shooter (aesth)etic by presenting a moral antithesis to “Gears of War”. Videogames desperately need what films about the Vietnam war showed to the North-American psyche – a bleak sense of guilt and conscience and sin. A conscience that war is not a game, that death on massive scales is a catastrophe. There isn’t any progress in taking 80′s action schlock and slamming a hypocritical narrator on top; even “The Expendables” has moments of moral self-awareness, though that still doesn’t mean it is a serious film:

“You remember that time we was up in Bosnia? We took down them Serb bad boys? All our guys were gettin’ chopped up all around us and there was blood everywhere. I never though I was gonna make it out of there and I know you didn’t and you didn’t either. Kinda feelin’ like… dead too, ya know? My heads all very, very black place. Didn’t believe in shit. Just goddamn Dracula black. I remember I got this bottle of this local shit they have over there. That Silvits… I think that’s what it was called. And I ain’t feelin’ no pain now… and I come up on this, uh… I come up on this overland bridge, and I see this… I see this… I see this woman standing there, ya know? And she’s, uh… I stepped out and she saw me, and she’s just lookin’ right… right in my eyes. And I was lookin’ right in her eyes, and I knew what she was gonna do. She looked at me, and I knew she was gonna jump. You know what I did, man? I just turned around I kept walkin’ until I heard that splash and she was gone. [crying]After… after taking all them lives, she was one that I could have saved, but I didn’t, and uh… What I realized later on was, uh, if I’d have saved that woman, I might have… I might have saved what was left of my soul, ya know.”

This has been the generation of military shooters. “Call of Duty” games alone have sold over 120 Million copies since “Modern Warfare” was released, generating billions of dollars in the process. It’s big business and so big in fact, that the entire medium has been coerced by its economical forces to converge into the shooter genre. Similarly themed pieces were produced by the dozens – “Brothers in Arms”, “Killzone”, “Resistance”, etc. – and most of this DNA was incorporated in different genres, from open world games like “GTA IV” to action-adventure pieces such as “Uncharted”. This current in the production scene, through crowding and repetition, had the perverse side-effect of banalizing the formula it chose to promote. The search for flashy new marketing angles became the core of producers preoccupations. “Haze” was one of the first attempts to deal with more adult subject matter (drugs, war, morality), recent “Medal of Honor” games have also tried to become more serious and humane in their portrayals of Middle-Eastern wars, and even “Black Ops” blended conspiratorial 70′s fiction into its Tom Clancy narrative. Meanwhile, “Bioshock” hit a home-run with the notion of a shooter for smart people, a satire of capitalist fanatic Ayn Rand, and “Far Cry 2” made the statement, promulgated by game-designer of the moment, Clint Hocking, of being the ultimate oxymoron: a shooter based on “Heart of Darkness”. When Yager chose Conrad, they were not choosing the hitherto unchosen: they knew the critical praise received by “Far Cry 2” despite its lackluster sales figures, and they knew audiences were starving for ‘adult’ war games. So the end result is “Spec Ops The Line” – a new iteration in a generic military game franchise, from the creative non-authors of F.E.A.R., its gameplay modeled after “Gears of War”, its narrative taken from “Far Cry 2’s” pseudo-subject matter and its visuals reprising formal elements from “Bioshock”. That’s it, this is its creative process laid bare. The theme of war needs to be dealt with authenticity and honesty in the videogame medium, but “The Line” never had these to begin with.

It is nigh impossible to reform a genre from within, especially when its expressive purpose lies in the antipodes of what you want to convey. Just as “The Expendables” can never be a drama about war, “Gears of War” can never be a game about war. Yager was playing with bad references and got nowhere new. Even had they a vision for a dramatic statement on their genre, they had to sell to compensate their AAA budget, and that meant they had to deliver a game that subscribed to popular perceptions of what a war game is: entertaining. As a shooter game, “Spec Ops” is, as most media articles tell you, decent and nothing more. As a cultural artifact, it is one of the most offensive and manipulative titles to have been released in the past decade, for it mystifies its role, leading audiences to consider this is a game with high moral considerations on the nature of war, when it is anything but. In years to come, we run the risk of having players read about and look back seriously at a game that emulates “Call of Duty” as if it were “The Thin Red Line”. Whilst the former is dumb and so offensively so, that no one would ever even consider them to be expressive, the same cannot be said of “The Line”. It implies more than its experience affords, and in a medium with little artistic criticism to speak of, we fear history will look this title with kind eyes. Critics and scholars, while divided, respect “The Line”. Keogh is even writing a book on it, because he feels it made him question how we look at war in videogames. He is right. “Spec Ops” shows that videogames look at war in crass, shallow ways. They tell us that war is fun, they trivialize violence and its consequences, make it pretty and enjoyable, and appeal to our male testosterone, making us feel strong and bullish and powerful. The moral considerations on this expressive rhetoric are self-evident. War is the antithesis of those feelings: it is the suppression of the self face the country-machine, it is anxiety and terror made living constants, hopelessness as the sole possible state of mind and death the only release. “The Line” doesn’t make you feel that way. It is questionable whether or not it even addresses, abstractly, this state of affairs. It may acknowledge it, but it forgoes any chance of redemption by replicating the moral evil it questions. The tenuous line was crossed the moment it made killing ‘fun’. How could this game pose questions on war, if its answers are similar to those of “Gears of War”? The answer is: it can’t.

*Some citations were edited for reading ease, but always respecting the original sources.

A Reflection on “Indie Game: The Movie”

It appears to have become moderately consensual that the game industry is in a creative strut. Big companies are so obsessed with accessible, risk-free game design for the masses that even some mainstream audiences are starting to gain mild aversion to the formulaic nature of these titles. Whenever such a problem is posed however, the solution is always at hand: the independent developers are here to save the day. It is a seductive argument, since independent creators lack high stakes industrial production budgets, and as such can risk innovation, creativity, and can go as far as ignore large segments of the market. Thus, here is “Indie Game the Movie”, a documentary intent on supporting a movement that is bound to change the video-game landscape forever… or maybe not.

“The Movie” follows four people, “Super Meat Boy’s” Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, “Fez’s” Phil Fish and “Braid’s” own Jonathan Blow. Strange world is this where a movement is characterized by four individuals, all from the same country (more or less) and all from the same generation. It’d be fine if we were discussing say, Pre-Raphaelites or the French New Wave (and God pardon me for this offensive citation of such admirable gents), and not independent games, a category which is transversal to an entire medium, has had representatives from all around the world and ever since its inception, something like 50 years ago. To properly discuss the cultural relevance and creative value of independent game development, one would have to do a historical overview of several different moments and movements which can fit inside this adjective of “independent”. Many authors from Japan, Europe, Central and South America would need to be cited, on mere account of historical and cultural relevance to the medium. Really, even a simple Wikipedia page view reveals the obvious – indies have neither age nor country, they are a heterogeneous group rich in diversity. But let us be kind, and assume such a scope is too vast and extensive to tackle in a feature documentary; even thus, if we would simply stick to post-2008 North-America, we would find a large group of independent game designers who should have a say in this documentary and are only surreptitiously quoted. Where are Jenova Chen, Robin Hunicke and Kellee Santiago from thatGameCompany? Where is Jason Rohrer or Rod Humble? Kyle Gambler and Ron Carmel from 2D Boy or Alex Neuse from Gaijin Games? Where is so-called game design genius Markus “Minecraft” Persson? They are nowhere to be seen, as are major faces involved in promoting and awarding praise to indie games, either relegated to the background with the odd soundbyte, or not even a part of the film. The context for the entire indie game movement is a 10 minute show-reel filled with half-truths, random images of games from aforementioned designers, and some very personal observations from the four authors who the directors actually bothered following and interviewing. What the documentary seems to be validating is a misconceived, manipulative and provincial view of what goes for indie gaming – Nintendo game clones with quirky pixel art, entirely developed by North-American engineers and designers… for Xbox live. That’s the alpha and omega of the documentary.

A pondered selection would be key in getting a film to even come close to have some sort of meaningful debate on the past, present and future of independent videogame production. One would need to accurately characterize independent games context so as to approach its acquired meaning in a medium striving for change, and that would involve citing many authors, teams and games which the film doesn’t even seem to recognize. I won’t even get to the point of addressing the taste issues regarding “Team Meat” games, or the tone in which these newfound heroes are glorified as they are extracted from their real lives and shoved into narrative archetypes for the sheer sake of drawing a clean little Freytag triangle. No, that would be questioning the whole voyeuristic TV documentary style, its ethical and social implications, and would take too much effort. The greatest fault of the documentary is that it simply has no pretense of historical, pedagogical, or academic goals, let alone any mild artistic aspirations. It is purely commercial: it aims at entertaining, making some money, and maybe selling the image (and games) of a number of game designers. That’s “the Movie” to a T.

From the unfantastic four, only Jonathan Blow has something meaningful to observe, and he’s the least interviewed of the four. He’s portrayed as a mystical guru, an egomaniacal genius that sits in the dark as videogame Buddha, programming while standing, and calmly spreading pearls of enlightenment with each pondered phrase. He’s an indie scene God, and Fish and Team Meat are his devout acolytes. Blow speaks with an ease and thoughtfulness that clearly make him the odd man out. For instance, Team Meat becomes overjoyed with commercial and critical success of their title, filmed while intellectually masturbating at the sight of e-mails with sales numbers, flashing review numbers in the 90% and up Metacritic, all quotes of “awesome” and “fun” being trashed about, and even delighting in silly YouTube videos that show the fans doing what they do best. All the while, Tommy and Edmund glow as if they were watching Mona Lisa in the Louvre: they made it, they even outsold “Braid”, their reviews have the word masterpiece in the lead, and suddenly Team Meat is the reference. All hail the new prophets of the new art-form, the film implies. Blow, on the other hand, reacted differently to his acclaim: he says he enjoyed the success but went into depression. The reason? Nobody understood Blow’s authorial point. Nobody interpreted his videogame in a way that made sense to him. Nobody connected with Blow on the level he was aiming at. His expressive discourse was a one way soliloquy and no one was listening. After discussing these matters in comment pages with reviewers and commentators all over the web, he was shunned and became the laughing stock of internet town. Apparently, he then retreated into the superior plane of existence where he now rests while conjuring his forthcoming misunderstood masterpiece. The point is that unlike Team Meat, Jonathan Blow cared more about his artistic view than his commercial success – and that is a mark of someone who the medium would do well to listen to. The film never returns to probe deeper into these issues; Team Meat’s breakfast is more important, evidently.

Personally, I don’t think “Braid” ever stood a chance. It is a sophisticated, nuanced work that does not lent itself to oversimplification. Its theme, of course, concerns Time, and how Time shapes a fundamental archetype of human life – men’s relationship with women. Mother, friend, girlfriend, wife, daughter… Princess. If “Super Mario Bros.” was a plumber’s dream of saving a beautiful princess made surrealist, joyful adventure, “Braid” is an oniric poem on the variations of that same basic theme. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s work, it is a tale of infinite arrangements, kaleidoscopically interconnected through a weave of unconscious thought and memory, a search for a figure both illusive and ever present, a feminine voice that draws you in with its allure till you’re close enough to feel it, and yet remains out of touch. This hyper-fiction does not fit the excel columns of Graphics, Narrative, Value, Design, Fun, Longevity, ‘bang for buck’ and whatever else Gamespot and IGN can add up to a neat number or statistic. Superficially, “Braid” shines in these hollow nouns, for its visuals, soundtrack, story and gameplay are immediately accessible, and its technical proficiency (in terms of budget segment) is unquestionable. Its basic references are recognizable by an autophagic medium that knows Mario and Donkey Kong and little else. In this sense, it is indistinguishable from “Super Meat Boy” – but everything else that lies dug deep in its essence, remaining hidden from uncouth sight, is precisely what elevates “Braid” to a distinguished category inside the confines of the North-American indie scene. Superficially, and only superficially, “Braid” garners success in the dark avenues of videogames, because it can lend itself to a positive evaluation from a commercial understanding of what a videogame is – a product. It is sellable, and as thus, reviews and sales were positive, irrespective of any writ whatsoever that can take into account the (aest)ethic, symbolic, cultural and interpretative aspects which Blow yearned to explore. It just doesn’t equate, relate or resonate. To Blow, mechanics and story were a means of expression; to the industry at large, they were means for having fun.

Scholars are also to blame, for despite being free of short term commercial goals and similar considerations, failed in realizing what Blow intended with his game. They present their academic discourse with passion and insight, but naively base their analytical prose on references and axioms that are as ill-suited to the proper analysis of an artwork as Gametrailers valuation categories. Their point of view is highly influenced by a short-lived Media Communication field that wishes to come of age by ignoring and even re-writing millennia of Humanities knowledge with half-concocted theses and theories. When probed deep enough, popular academics reveal an unconscious subscription to many ideological perversities: the mercantilization and mass industrialization of the arts, a hedonic and consumerist view of life, and a total disdain for intellectual criticism and education, understood as forms of presumptuous elitism and therefore, antithetical to the universal values of free, democratic, opinionated access to the arts by the people. What scholars tend to reveal is, basically, a lack of adequate education for the study of the cultural phenomenon of the digital arts. Those few who bear the right tools for a proper discourse either fall into two traps. The first is that with time, the persuasiveness and ubiquitous nature of the dominating videogame discourse gets to them and their reference point is corrupted beyond repair. Long standing axioms on what constitutes art and good art get rewritten by pressure of the all-powerful zeitgeist. Those who do not fall in such a trap end up cast-way, rejected from the videogame society, insulted by everyone, misunderstood by all, relegated to the interstices of the internet, as obscure beacons whom only the most lucky, illuminated audiences know where to find. The finest example of this is Bruno de Figueiredo, an intellectual (in every sense of the word) whom I consider to be, without a shadow of the doubt, the leading world authority in videogame aesthetics, criticism and history, now writing in some obscure blog which is not divulged by fear of visit by unwanted eyes. Other exiles are sure to roam in the vast ocean of the internet, hidden from search engines, writing that which needs to be written by videogames. Vanguardist authors suffer similar fates. Either they leave the industry, or survive in ghettoes. Take the notgames movement, the most recent of these processes of social exclusion; when “Tale of Tales” was attempting their breakout work with “The Path”, no critical praise ever gave them a chance to succeed in the limelight. They were called pretentious and pseudo-intellectuals. Their opus was carefully deconstructed in terms of value: you could say it is good, but only with a trailing series of if’s, like ‘if you’re into art-games’, ‘if you are not looking for fun’ or ‘if you value pursuit of the mind’. “The Path” was great… if and only if you didn’t expect it to be like videogames. Their oeuvre was deemed as not even deserving to belong in the same medium… on hindsight, thank God for that.

The medium we have is the one we want. When players buy “Call of Duty” or “Super Meat Boy”, they embrace the same ideals. They may think “Super Meat Boy” is different, and in a sense, it may very well be, being developed by two instead of two hundred, but budgets and developing teams are details when it comes to creative pursuits. The audience is the same, and the values pursued by creators who engage with that audience, whether they are two or two hundred, are thus the same. Take a look at “Team Meat’s” bedroom walls and at the games they claim to want to buy. Is it chance that their games are carbon copies of “Super Mario Bros” (”Super Meat Boy”) and “The Legend of Zelda” (“The Binding of Isaac”)? That their game design value is as discardable and hollow and conservative as that of the latest “Fallout”? That their aesthetic is as crude, insulting and prepubescent as that of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” or their narrative as immature and hedonistic as that of a “Transformers” cartoon? No: authors honor their cultural environment, and Team Meat only knows retro games and shallow mainstream entertainment. Their cultural heritage is not different from the latest AAA game, because they play AAA games from past and present. Team Meat games are hedonist pursuits, devoid of cultural taste and lacking any form of moderately adult expression… and the same can be said of any “Call of Duty”. They may not like the industry’s alienation of workers, and thus, symbolically reject big-budget titles, but from an aesthetic point of view they see eye to eye. They cannot offer anything that is not already polluted and disiminated in the cesspool of popular videogames and media, for a simple reason: they don’t know anything beyond that world. They can only reiterate, recombine and regurgitate, ad-infinitum, that which they know, which is all we already know and are fed-up with. They have nothing new to tell and so they cannot challenge their audiences to grow as human beings. Now, don’t get me wrong, Team Meat is not the issue here. Their commercial and critical success is, at best, a symptom of a larger disease. A film that elevates them to mythological status, as sacrificial knights in shining armor that are trying to save the game industry, is only adding to the insult. How Jonathan Blow even acquiesced to be placed in the same film as them is puzzling.

Not that Phil Fish is any better. His angsty ambition may seem the appropriate act for a visionary, but what I saw was an arrogant perfectionist looking for approval everywhere he found. His game is as derivative and thematically inept as any by “Team Meat” and perhaps even more so – or am I the only one who sees “Fez” as an inflation of “Paper Mario” mechanics? Visually, “Fez” is delightful and pretty, with superbly detailed pixel art and a cool gimmicky 2D/3D engine. But, as Fish himself states, his notion of aesthetics is that design is knowing when green looks good with blue (I’m paraphrasing). He forfeits any mention of expressive desires, meaningful communication, thematic exploration, movement citations, etc. Even Edmund gets that part, whilst rudely trying to communicate his troubled childhood! At some point, Fish claims his game is a cubist painting made interactive. I’m guessing he has never looked at a Picasso, or he’d realize the foolishness of his affirmation; if anything, his game is anti-cubist. Phil only did “Fez” to look good to an audience who praises fan-art, pixel-art and retro-styled games, but has never looked at a painting in their life. Of course, like Team Meat, he catered to an adolescent audience and succeeded. But what does “Fez” seek to achieve in terms of author intent? Fish admits to everything, really: he wanted to recapture how players felt in the age before the internet, when secrets in a videogame were… secret, mysterious and illusive. The theme, again, is that of an adult (or a seemingly adult) that wishes to recapture his infancy. He makes games for kids and adults who behave as kids. His grand ideal of design is doing that which “Zelda” did in the 1980s… that’s almost 30 years ago in case you didn’t notice. Like Team Meat, Fish imagines himself doing art for the sake of homage to Nintendo-Power… now that’s one quote for the Taschen covers. Phil doesn’t even wish to recapture that sense of awe with added spectacle, beauty or a new-found reflection. There is no reinterpretation of the oft referenced theme, there is no subversive discourse, no subtle reverential play. While Blow reimagined an entire genre, by conveying his own emotions and thoughts, Fish, like Team Meat, is happy to just copy and paste, adding nothing. No, such musings are far and beyond Phil Fish. He’s the author who clones Japanese videogames so he can say they just suck.

“Indie Game the Movie” is a manipulative documentary intent on vindicating an aura of triumph for a group of people who have little in common, who do not represent the best that videogames have to offer, and who are proof of everything that is wrong with videogame creation. The directors are dumbfounded, arrogant, naive youngsters who got mixed in a movement they knew little about, and they didn’t even care about it enough to improve on their and their viewers lack of knowledge. Their film, of course, teaches you nothing. You’ll only learn of a contemporary world where authors value ‘art’ through numbers – sales, review classifications, metacritic scores, facebook likes, youtube views–, and you’ll come to witness the same emptiness, rudeness and lack of growth present in mainstream media in a different garment. Thankfully, independent videogame development exists beyond this farce, and there are authors who can help us dream of a brighter day for this medium. You‘ll just have to look elsewhere to find out something about them.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron – “Humbling before the Divine”

Some works just plain stick out, protruding from mediocrity and shining light upon darkness; “El Shaddai” is thus, a videogame that yearns for a sense of indescribable beauty which lies beyond comprehension. Its longing can, above all, be explained by an unexpected choice of theme for a videogame – the adaptation of the book of Enoch, one of the apocryphal texts recovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls that narrates the fall. Were this a vulgar adaptation, and the base material would be treated as simple marketing fodder, a mercantilist way of influencing consumer’s perception of value and increasing sales by borrowing the ‘ethos’ of a work that sounds culturally relevant and deep (a blatant example of this being “Dante’s Inferno”). But the director, Takeyasu Sawaki, seems to have had an honest intent on recapturing the source material’s feel, namely religious texts’ primal reverence for the supernatural and holy embodied in deeply symbolic poetry. Given his affinity to the visual arts (being art designer by trade), Sawaki translated the sentiment as he knew best, by adorning every graphical form with a modern taste for the beautiful yet cryptic and ambiguous, so as to instill total awe in the face of the alluring ungraspable. So, with the help of Soutarou Hori (art director), they seem to have trawled deep into art in search of references, arriving at an eclectic mix that embodies a bit of everything, from classical sculpture’s marble purity to the fantastic milieu of Japanese anime (admittedly in reference to Miyazaki and his studio) and even toying with abstract Kandinsky-like compositions. As far as videogames go, even a minor but glaring citation to “Metal Gear Solid 2″ gets a place in the long line of influences. The relationship that it ends up establishing with players is astounding: travelling through ethereal landscapes that bear almost nill resemblance to naturalist conceptions, you are made to admire a lavish sprawl of breathtaking digital art that evokes a spirit of quiet solemnity that is characteristic of sacred art. The technical quality is as stunning as its aesthetic virtuosity, making of use of the most unexpected graphical effects while avoiding standardized industry techniques; every form seems made anew, as if a painter had sought new brushes that could capture that which was yet to be. For it is quite a revolution – in taste and technique – that hides beneath the game’s plastic surface, one which finds no match save in a few of the more vanguardist experiments of the past – Mizuguchi’s “Rez” often coming to mind.

Where “El Shaddai” falls from grace is when it actually asks players to play it. For ascension to be pure, Sawaki would have had to find some sort of interaction that could capture and further expand the godly expression which the art so powerfully achieved. But unlike in Mizuguchi’s masterpiece, where gameplay strived for pure synesthesic enthrallment, Sawaki seems to have never conceived how interaction could feed into a relationship with the transcending allegorical language. So, whether for lack of creative spark or simple commercial cynicism, he seems to have cowered from such grand design and stuck with the first worldly template he could recover, irrespective of its effect. Thus, the most basic Mario platforming and a rhythmic refrain on Hideki Kamiya combat (Sawaki had worked on both “Devil May Cry” and “Ôkami”) were the pillars for the game that ended up hastily glued on top of the sumptuous painting. The result is not only uninspired from a pure luddite point of view – lacking “Bayonetta’s” absolute brashness and “Mario’s” cheerful joy – as it goes as far as baring players from properly indulging the scenic delights. While this sin plants doubt on what more could be achieved by such vision, it is still a palatable experience that fails to offend the more judgemental critic. Rejoice then we must, at the voyage that does reach its destination and not fret over that which lies out of reach – “El Shaddai” is surely one of the most breathtaking visual spectacles videogames have ever witnessed, a thing of beauty as ever was one, unrivaled in both execution and scope of genius. It is a window into a world that has no bearing on this mundane desert which we call medium, a glimpse of the divine landscape of gods that shines from afar, one which now, as if by miracle, seems nigh.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – “The Writer and the Numbers”

Imagine a writer that was lacking in imagination, incapable of anything but regurgitating genre plots so filled with tropes and clichéd characters, he could barely write a word without making use of the formulas he read back in college in “how to write” books. Though not technically incapable – his English was competent – this writer was also devoid of gracious form in his prose, his stylistic flair incoherent and drab, either overwrought when need be of simplicity and elegance, or too shallow and paltry when riveting poetry was required. But how he yearned for success! Now, would this hypothetical writer actually be a videogame designer, he could practice a sleight of hand and actually become the most applauded and revered of authors. All he had to do was razzle and dazzle his readers with his effort and capacity to deliver quantity instead of quality. And so, though his prose did not evoke rapture, he started to write a beastly mammoth of a book, so vast one could barely take it in hands and not feel the weight of such hard work, as the bulk of those millions of words made itself physically known, as if you actually could hold what they were intent on describing: a never-ending world of adventure and fantasy, so large and detailed and multifaceted, none could compare. It would take thousands of hours to read every tale inscribed in his epic, “1001 Nights” now but a drabble by comparison, hundreds of hours to only scour the surface of his world and read his descriptions of its landscapes, making “Lord of the Rings” seem a trivial pamphlet, and thousands more for the never-ending wars and battles, each as long as the once mighty “War and Peace”. It would be the greatest masterpiece the world had ever seen… well, at least, literally speaking. Such hypothetical epic is, of course, “The Elder Scrolls” at its more symbollic, and such ungifted artist I write of is none other than Todd Howard, the mastermind now at the helm of the series.

In “Skyrim”, everything is massive and many, but such ostensive manner lead us nowhere. For at its heart, this is aught more than a traditional high-fantasy romp in dark-fantasy garbs very much the same line as “Oblivion”, with very little to distinguish the two. Admittedly, some authors are capable of playing with expertise inside the fictional confines of these stale genres – Square Enix once did that job beautifully -, but Bethesda has few virtues to speak of, and what little it has ends up lost in the murky ocean of discardable trash which populates their games. We sit far from “Fallout 3’s” acute cynicism and socio-political satire; herein you can expect more evil empires, more dubious would-be revolutionaries, more elves and orcs and ogres and pixies and goblins and dragons and whatnot, more bearded headstrong heroes with no charisma, more flashy magic spells, more repetitive combat, more blood and guts and looting, more quests, hell, even more elaborate plots about the end of the world and civilization! Only “more” interests for this new tome. The sole twist in this new outing lies in the obvious influence of “Game of Thrones” in both narrative and world qualities of the Skyrim land, and this alone is telling of the authorial honesty of Todd Howard’s goons: follow whatever is trendy in the mass media.

But how beautiful “Skyrim’s” idyllic landscapes are! – says the public and the so-called critics. But is it really so? Well, it is true that, if there is something which was enjoyable about “Morrowind”, “Oblivion” and, to a lesser extent, “Fallout 3”, it lied in these games spatial exploration. “Skyrim” is no exception to the rule. You’ll find a plethora of naturalist environments with vague romantic flair: many a pine tree, fern, flower, mountain and misty grove, coloring the landscape with grays and whites and greens that lend themselves to the slow trot of the passerby, accompanied once again by Soule’s breathtaking soundtrack, soothing the weary eye and cleansing the soul of more mundane, quest-like preoccupations. But the composition of its many visual elements is shoddy at best. Taken in separate, one cannot deny the competent technical capacity involved in its digital designs; but textures and models vanish in their uncoordinated ad-nauseam repetition, forming unflattering blobs of samey patterns. You get to see objects and lands many, many, many times, seldomly framed with the clinical eye of a gifted digital landscape artist, with most views sticking out in a jumble of procedurally generated redundancy. But where it hurts most is in the use of light and color: elements are usually integrated into each scene by dimming contrast, so as to afford minimal cohesion. The effect robs many views of their natural beauty, either making sets too bright and bloomy or dark and bleak. Further artifices are employed to mask the lacklustre digital draughtsmanship: “Skyrim” is, on a purely technical level, a state of the art piece, home to all the graphical engineering tricks that feature in marketing check-lists, but be not in doubt that these are to no avail when employed by those whose aesthetic vision is limited to comic-book and hollywood blockbuster references.

We are quick to concede that not all scenes and objects display such absence of ideal – some Romanesque buildings are a wonder to admire in their sheer monolithic opulence, and the elemental details are particularly pleasing to the eye. The icey cave stalactites with their cold sheen, the bright fiery torches with their sparkles flying through the air, the falls and rivers and bedstreams glistening white with hazy mist, the snowy mountain peaks with their fierce gales and, last but not least, the gorgeous night sky with its ever present array of colorful (yes, colorful!) aurorae borealis – these were all conjured with a genius that is altogether absent from their surroundings (the same being true for previous “Elder Scroll” titles). All in all, the world manages to feel living enough, and given the game’s reliance on long trips (as long as one avoids abusing fast-travel), you get to indulge in its scenery for so much time that it becomes an intricate part of its appeal, perfect for geocachers and strollers. But though it can caress your inner nature-lover, it boasts a lesser, mundane type of beauty: its picturesque qualities show as brave and bold aesthetics as can be found in a random pretty tourism postcard, and even considering the mellowing comfort it can afford, it is surpassed by similarly scaled games as “Red Dead Redemption” and the recent “Xenoblade Chronicles”, both of which manage to show far greater character and authorial impression in their many lavish settings.
But lively though its lands may occasionally feel, its inhabitants share not the same quality. There is no denying the effort that went into “Oblivion’s” schedule driven AI programming, with its array of motivations and social-functions, but where such technique might have borne vital flame to these dead polygonal dolls, their visual characterization and animation blow such kindle to cold icy ash, for once again they look like crude action figures and move like stiff robots. It is true that there have been minor improvements face the fourth chapter – women are now blessed with porn-actress bodies and Xena warrior face, and men are now strong-blooded Norse Vikings instead of mushy round-faced old men – but even if they are not quite as ugly, disproportionate or uncanny, they are still thoroughly grotesque and generic. The problem extends to their aural side, as once again voice actors have their lines repeated ad-infinitum in hundreds of different NPC’s, forced-fed the same flat script, made to blurt out never-ending bibles of drab fantasy lore in quarter-hour-long soliloquies, bodies rock-steady in their vacant emotional expression, absent of any poetry or charm whatsoever in their declamation.

At the end of the day, “Skyrim’s” woes are the same as its forbears. Like the writer, it sells its numbers as measures of quality, desperately trying to hide its inability to design something beautiful, subtle, articulate and emotionally expressive. It is surely not by chance that Bethesda has never created anything that could amaze without resorting to scale! For you can find no heart or soul in their works, only the fakeness of men wanting to sell quantities of pyrite as if it were a nugget of artistic gold. But art is not measured in a scale, and such creative philosophy can only subsist by relying on the objectivist, market-driven ideals of a medium’s audience that salivates at the presence of quantifiable quality measurements. “Skyrim” is a statement, “Experience the different character and play styles, the dozens and dozens of quests, the nine metropolises and their many satellite towns, hacking your way through hundreds of dungeons, in uncountable hours of exploration and combat, hoarding the many thousands of books and items and weapons, across forty kilometers of wide open space, built out of billions and billions of polygons! And all this with massive dragons on top!” One either subscribes this, and appreciates the sheer size of its lunatic ambition, engaging in its enormous amount of entertainment, thus giving in to the mindless trek of its addiction, hours and hours of menial tasks made enjoyable, building up experience and gold as if you were a meth junky… or one may as well keep a sane mind and heartily laugh at the game’s knick knackery execution, rough edges, derivative theme and incomprehensible lack of taste. We admit that with all its faults, “Skyrim” at least manages to march away from stats and dice-rolls and text-driven apparatus (unlike “New Vegas” or “Xenoblade Chronicles”), seeking a roleplaying game more naturalistic in form, with exploration of an open fantasy world at the forefront of its preoccupations. If only Bethesda could focus on creating a rich, detailed region with a heartfelt storyline instead of a spoiled mess of a continent with a hydra of bland fantasy tales, they might succeed. But like the writer, they are incapable of doing so, for just as he cannot really write literature, only spew out words into paper, so is Bethesda only capable of spewing out thousands of hours of gameplay… there simply isn’t a videogame to be found in them.

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