Archive for February, 2008

“Semiotics and its Importance in Adaptations” and “Tomb Raider Review”

The semiotic language of games is different than the one in movies; normally, directors and writers of these adaptations either don’t fully understand one or the other (sometimes even both… *coff* Uwe Boll *coff*). Now, this is the primary condition for a successful transition from one means to the other; I mean, how can one even begin to think about adapting an artistic means to another without understanding the language each one of them uses? Just imagine taking a book filled with meaningful metaphors and translate it into a movie without taking into account the same metaphors; most of the book’s hidden meanings would be lost. What’s happening in most game-to-movie adaptations is similar to this. Either the director/writer didn’t play the game or didn’t understand its drive or focus (example: “Resident Evil”), or they played it, but simply don’t know how to convey that into a correct and interesting cinematic language (example: “Final Fantasy: Advent Children”).

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Take for instance, “Tomb Raider”; what was convened in the movie? Basically that there is this rich Lara Croft babe, that is an athletic, voluptuous chick that can shoot like Neo, jump higher and farther than the established Olympic records and that does a living by exploring tombs filled with ancient “magical” artifacts that hold the most powerful hidden secrets of extinct civilizations. Was “Tomb Raider” really about this? Well, in part, it was, at least when it came to the games backdrop and small uninteresting cutscenes. But I don’t believe that was the main focus of the game. If you ask me, “Tomb Raider” was all about creating a sense of immersion in an unknown and mystic scenario and the exploration of large ancient ruins, filled with beautiful architectural details and strange enigmatic puzzles. Now look at the movie again, was any of this in the movie? No! Why? Because the screenwriters only understood “Tomb Raider” from a simplistic cinematic point of view; the only narrative they saw in “Tomb Raider” was the one imbued in the idiotic plot and action part of the game. Why? They just don’t understand how narrative is conveyed in games, period. Everything in the adaptation stinks, from the poor choice of scenarios to the action oriented nature of the movie, not forgetting the horrible rock and roll soundtrack (in opposed to the game’s classical arrangements that augmented the tension and ambiance of the tombs). You could argument that the sense of exploration would be hard to convey in the movie; but hey, that was the main focus of the game: if you can’t convey that, then don’t even bother adapting it.

And this happens in almost every adaptation: where’s the sense of isolation, dread and horror in “Resident Evil”? Remember Milla Jovovich roundhouse-kicking dogs? C’mon, is it that hard to understand that’s not scary? Where’s the dark mysticism in “Alone in the Dark”? I’ll tell you where, it’s lying in the slaughterhouse after it was butchered by Uwe Boll’s horror/sci-fi scenarios filled with daylight (it’s a game about darkness, how hard can it be to understand that?) and his macho-soldier armies armed with heavy machine guns that blow everything to shreds (were there armies in the game… NO!). Where are the Ha-Do-Kens in “Street Fighter”? Oh, that blue myst that comes out of Ryu’s hands at the end of the movie IS a Ha-Do-Ken… I’d never have guessed, maybe I’m just dumb…

[More ranting about adaptations coming soon…]

“Game-to-Movie adaptations – why they fail miserably…“

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Last week, my “Study and Development of Games” teacher talked about movie-to-game adaptations. His words were something like: “It [Movie Adaptations] doesn’t work because it’s hard to please the fans that already know the story, while at the same time, pleasing the audience that knows nothing about the game. You can’t overexposure the plot for the first public, and underexpose for the other.” Now, later this week, I saw Uwe Boll’s “Alone in the Dark”, which is the worst movie I ever seen, bar none, game-adaptation or not. Since then I’ve been analyzing all the reasons why game-to-movie adaptations fail. Because, let’s face it, they always fail, always. To this day there isn’t a single adaptation that I consider to be a half-good movie (and I’ve seen pretty much all of the supposedly “good” ones); maybe my cinema-critic background makes me too demanding, but I can’t see any movie based game that can actually be held on its own as a good movie experience. So, from now on, in this topic I’ll be exploring the reasons I think make unsuccessful game-to-movie transitions. Besides that, I’ll review some of the transitions… and don’t expect for me to be sympathetic or to have any pity on those pieces of cinematic garbage, just because they came from good games; I will thoroughly dissect every adaptation until its smelly, putrefied guts are all out in the open, so that anyone can understand how bad they really, really are.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne – “A Noir Epic”

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Sometimes you have to wonder: why a sequel? “Max Payne” was, in the limited realm of videogame art, probably one of the best works ever to be released; so, why a sequel? Was there anything left to be said? About Max, I mean? His love was dead, his past no longer a mystery and his desire for vengeance was fulfilled. So I have to admit, there seemed to be no reason to delve into Max Payne’s sad, morbid and twisted mind again… or was there?

“The past is a gaping hole. You try to run from it, but the more you run, the deeper it grows behind you, its edges yawning at your heels. Your only chance is to turn around and face it. But it’s like looking down into the grave of your love, or kissing the mouth of a gun, a bullet trembling in its dark nest, ready to blow your head off.”

“Max Payne 2” might seem like an attempt to cash in from the original’s success: it took less than two years to design, graphically it’s very similar, it starts with exactly the same tone and plot devices as its predecessor, the plot opens holes in the first one’s narrative, that quite frankly, just weren’t there and a certain character is mysteriously revived during the first screens of the game. So, at a glance, “Max Payne 2” could seem like an afterthought of the original. But appearances are misleading…

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“What the fuck is wrong with you, Max? Why don’t you just die? You hate life, you’re miserable all the time, afraid to enjoy yourself even a little! Face it, you might as well be dead already. Do yourself a favor, give up! “

The first thing that pops up is that Max Payne doesn’t look like Max Payne. His character model is different. At first, this seems strange, this eerie, awkward transition from a Hawaiian shirt youngster with quirky smile and feel free attitude, to this middle-aged man with disillusioned, depressed, deep caved eyes that look as they’ve seen all the horrors the world has to offer. But if you ponder, you will understand that this is the way Max Payne was meant to look like: a torn, spiritually crippled “noir” detective. This IS Max Payne. The change goes as far as revamping all the character models from the first game (in vignettes and in game-models), making them all feel more in key with the tone and style of the game. Series’ lead designer, Petri Järvilehto, explained why this change occurred: during the first game, their budget didn’t allow the designers to hire real actors for use in character models (only voice acting), and so they had to base characters on members of the creative team. Voices on the other hand, still sound the same, which is good, because they were already well acted in the first game.

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“Death is inevitable. Our fear of it makes us play safe, blocks out emotion. It’s a losing game. Without passion you are already dead.”

The subtle change of actors feels “key” in the grand scheme of things behind “Max Payne 2”, as the plot tries to go even deeper in terms of exploring its characters’ beliefs, motivations and above all, their feelings. This is a departure from the first game, since its story delved more on the actions and consequences of Max Payne’s obsessive vendetta, than on his actual inner demons. Now, that’s upside down, and the objective is focusing on Max Payne’s love, regret, and hope of atonement for his dark past. The story (once again written by Sami Järvi, series’ script and screenplay writer) runs deeper in its meanings and concoctions, its drama is truly heartfelt (to the point of a good drama film), even if in actual plot terms, nothing very important really happens during the game. Add a remixed version of the first game’s poignant soundtrack, some beautifully crafted comic-book style vignettes, the best dialog you’ve ever seen in a videogame, and you have a narrative that will chill your spine, challenge your brain and make your soul cry. That’s how good “Max Payne 2” story is.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Max Payne, New York’s finest, with the biggest mobster body count ever. Dearest guests, prepare to die! Max! I’d love to come and welcome you, but I’m busy dodging bullets and hiding under a desk at the moment!”

Though the actual gameplay is more or less the same as in the first game, it was subtly improved, with a small number of details that empower the already brilliant shooting mechanics. Firstly, the game is smaller, which means it’s juicier and more cohesive, leaving anything that could be defined as “filler” out. Levels are better designed this time around, and resonate with character’s feelings and states of mind, making them not only important in terms of gameplay, but also in terms of setting up the ambiance of the story. This was also true for the first game, but it’s better explored this time around; some levels are downright masterpieces of level and art design. Even the apparently unimportant TV shows (the parody to Shakespeare’s comedy “Much ado about nothing” named “Lords and Ladies”, the David Lynch homage “Address Unknown” and the spoof of blaxpoitation masterpiece “Shaft” – “Dick Justice”) that can be viewed in the scenarios’ television sets are incredibly well written and add layers of interpretation to characters and situations. In strict terms of gameplay, besides upholding the standard of the first game’s pacing, the designers use pre-scripted events and scenarios that change the flow of the game: like a level in which you play with someone else other than Max Payne that has to protect him, or a boss fight in where you actually have to think on how to kill your adversary. These small additions might seem irrelevant, but they actually make “Max Payne 2“ be, at least, as interesting in terms of gameplay as its predecessor.

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As expected not everything is perfect (though it is nearly so). As mentioned before, the actual plot doesn’t really go anywhere, since the ending of “Max Payne” left no avenues for a sequel. The visual aspect of the game doesn’t show much improving, and would’ve benefited from the use of better lighting technology (that was already available at the time of “Max Payne 2”), that might’ve made the in-game graphics resemble the expected “chiaroscuro” aesthetic [for more on “Chiaroscuro”, check “The Darkness” review]. Minor flaws apart, the game is simply astonishing and improves on every small aspect of its prequel, even if it feels much more of an update on the original than an actual sequel. “Max Payne 2” is the coming of age of a concept, the culmination of its authors’ artistry in story-telling, game and audiovisual design. If “Max Payne” was Art, then “Max Payne 2” is fine Art.

Overall: 5/5

[Thanks to JorgeSousa, who requested this review… which I’m hoping he’ll enjoy.]

We all make mistakes…

Since I’ve started the blog, I’ve been evaluating 5 aspects of games in the ratings. Namely: Plot, Art Design, Gameplay Mechanics, Level Design and Sound/Soundtrack.

I really haven’t explained these choices very well, and have been a victim of that fact. From now on, I’ll change Plot to Narrative, because most times, that is what I am really evaluating. In due time, I will update the “About Page” to fully encompass the reasons that led me to this change and these criteria.

Sorry for the change…

Choose the Next Review

From now on, you can choose which reviews I write next. Just pop on to “Choose the next review” page (top right corner link) and have fun!

Devil May Cry 4- “Sequels Make You Cry”

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“Capcom” is one of the most preeminent companies in the industry; it’s also one of the most innovative, especially considering the last few years. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t milk their sacred cows… quite on the contrary, they also have one of the more sequel driven publishing strategies. From a financial point of view, their tactic is quite sound: use “R&D-like” small production units to produce new and innovative concepts, and then explore the established franchises till they bleed, thus making enough profit to keep the boat afloat. Yet, from an artistic point of view, it’s an odd sight to see the same company name behind the brilliant “Devil May Cry” (the first one), “Killer7” and “Ôkami”, and the not so interesting “Megamans”, “Street Fighters”, “Resident Evils” and “Onimushas”.

But, the past is past, a new generation of platforms has arrived, and it remains to be seen if the financially risky creative departments will have a chance to produce new titles, considering the high production values behind xbox360 and ps3 games. So, after the original and interesting “Dead Rising”, it is with little surprise that “Capcom” now launches a sequel: “Devil May Cry 4”. “Devil May Cry”, like “Resident Evil”, has been a series filled with its fair share of ups and downs. The first “Devil May Cry” was a pure masterpiece; the second was a step backwards and the third a step sideways. So, it’s fair to say that the expectations weren’t very high. The question with this fourth installment is simple: does “Capcom” pull a “Resident Evil 4” out of the hat, or simply one more “Code Veronica”? The answer is… neither. Sadly, “Devil May Cry 4” doesn’t reinvent the series, but fortunately it has enough punch to forget the series’ uninspired past.

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Looking at the game, it is nice to see that many of the original game’s concepts were recaptured and finally improved on this sequel. Firstly, the neo-gothic art style has returned in full force and went back to basics. Instead of opting for the grand-scale scenarios of “DMC2” and “DMC3”, that mixed modern urban settings with the neo-gothic architecture and some horror inspired scenarios (with mixed results), “DMC4” goes for a more classic approach, forgetting the modern settings and replacing them with nineteenth century architecture that blends much better with the neo-gothic style. In the character department, there is also a return to the series roots, with more serious (but not exaggeratingly serious) designs replacing the often ridiculous monster design of the series. And thanks to more powerful hardware, everything looks even better, with crispy HD quality and great lighting effects that make everything shine; it’s easily one of the most visually impressive games around, thanks in great part to its art design and technical execution.

The tone of the game as also taken a leap backwards to the first “DMC”, forgetting the over the top humor of “Dante’s Awakening”, and going for a more B-movie feel: either stupidly serious or seriously humorous; it’s still is charmingly funny and witty, without going to the point of being “too” ridiculous. This goes well with the plot, that though mind numbing, manages to keep some interest in its unfolding. This is, in no small part, thanks to the virtuous cut-scene directing from the hands of Yûji Shimomura (director of “Versus”), who had already worked in “DMC3” and “Onimusha 3” with great results. His cut-scenes are among the best ever seen in a videogame, and it is impossible not to notice that they are done with great cinematic flair and style, though without the limitations of a real camera. [You can see for yourself how good the cutscenes are, Opera Cutscene, Nero vs Dante Cutscene]

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But those are mere details, what really matters in a “DMC” is the actual action, the one where you can take part of. And it is there that “DMC4” doesn’t do as well. On the good side of things, besides series’ veteran Dante (that comes with all the moves from previous games), there is a new playable character named Nero, that actually plays differently. It’s a not a difference you’ll notice immediately mind you, but as the game moves on, it’ll become all the more apparent: Nero’s movements were thought from scratch and forget many of the unnecessary complications of Dante’s moves (the numerous styles and weapon combinations). Nero has only one way of playing, and because of that, his gameplay feels much more modern and intuitive. Yet, many of the classic moves still make an appearance, and the somewhat obtuse and dated control system hurts the game… a lot. The reason for this lies in the use of subjective directions to make certain movements; the problem with this is that “DMC4” is too frenetic and action-driven for the player to be constantly trying to find out which direction Dante or Nero are facing, and which enemy they are targeting, especially if you consider the elevated number of enemies in each arena and the awkward camera angles (that are as bad as the ones in the first game, which dates to 2001…). So, while some progress was made in the gameplay department, its quirks and old-school approach just don’t cut it by today’s standards, and are hardly deserving of a sequel.

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“Devil May Cry 4” fails to be a true sequel to the first game in the series. It’s better than its two predecessors, but not enough to make it a masterpiece. The reason for this probably lies in “Capcom’s” design department, that chose Hideaki Itsuno (director of “DMC2” and “DMC3”) for director; meanwhile Hideki Kamiya (director of the first “DMC”, “Resident Evil 2”, “Okami”, “Viewtiful Joe”) and Shinji Mikami (director of “Resident Evil”, “Resident Evil 4”, exec. producer of the first “DMC” and many, many other things) are probably doing something new that will drive games to a whole new level. It’s a shame that “Capcom” isn’t always capable of reinventing its franchises, but one must understand that in order to innovate, they first must cash in on their series. Besides, how many masterpieces can gaming geniuses Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamyia create each season anyway? Not many, I’m afraid…

Overall: 3/5

Deus Ex: Invisible War – “A Question of Evolution”

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Hard core gamers are hard to please when it comes to sequels. They tend to be overzealous in terms of design choices, expecting new games in a franchise to follow the basis laid down by its predecessors. When games try and break the mold, forums get packed with angry hard-cores that slam mouth every new design choice, with little, if any, reason for their complaints (think FFXII or Oblivion). Curiously enough, these are the same that spend most of their time ranting about EA’s repetitive publishing politics. The result of this conservatism is well known, franchises tend to follow a pretty strict formula: avoid innovation. Look around, how many game series keep reinventing themselves, title after title? Surely not “Final Fantasy”, “Resident Evil”, “Tomb Raider”, “Metroid Prime”, “Halo”, and so on; though these are hugely successful games, they tend to be filled with uninspired concepts. That is why whenever a sequel tends to push the envelope, it deserves praise for its courage and creativity. And if the game is better, then great… if it’s not, at least something different was tried. “Deus Ex: Invisible War” is such a game: 3 years after the success of the first “Deus Ex”, Warren Spector created a new game that, while maintaining the spirit of its predecessor, didn’t stick with its foundations. Needless to say, he got little praise from his undying fans.

The first thing that undermines the first game’s concept is the game genre. Though “Deus Ex” used the first person perspective, at its core, was a pure RPG. Now, “Invisible War” embraces the FPS mechanics, even if it still has RPG elements beneath it all. Action requires dodging and aiming, and accuracy cannot be evolved; in fact, the only thing that can be evolved in the game, are the weapons and biomods (in similar fashion to “Deus Ex”). Still on the RPG side of the game, there are still side-quests to be performed, people to talk to, and an engrossing storyline to follow through. Still, it is important to ask: why the change of genre? Personally, I think Warren Spector understood that classical RPG’s where losing appeal, and more action oriented games where on the rise. More so, in the three years gap between these games, game design had been somewhat streamlined to the needs of the ever crescent casual players. And though this is arguable, I believe it was the right choice; “Invisible War” feels modern, user friendly, dynamic, fun and easy to play, even though it is less challenging and less engrossing than its RPG predecessor.

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Thanks to smaller, more cohesive levels, level design also comes out as more linear and intuitive (thank God); unfortunately, this also means the game’s environments are more claustrophobic, which stops the world from feeling alive and organic. Smaller levels also allow players to easily choose a path that is more suitable to their gaming style, avoiding the needless wandering that occurred in the first “Deus Ex”, whenever the player had to search for a specific venting crawl or door access. All of these elements contribute to the more action oriented nature of the game, and are well intertwined with the FPS mechanics of the game.

On the narrative side, the second “Deus Ex” also feels like a mixed bag. Dialogs are much more consistent in terms of writing quality, giving a more mature tone to the plot and its thought-provoking philosophical ramblings. However, this just isn’t enough to save the story that, besides remaining overly ambitious and somewhat ridiculous, is filled with plot holes and disastrous, monotonic voice-acting. Choices in terms of narrative have again been neglected, and even though this time around there are a few more possibilities in terms of story, it is difficult to find them encouraging, since their consequences are not, in any way, experienced by the player. You could say that you can “imagine” the consequences, but even that pleasure is denied by the game, since characters and situations are so boring and one-sided that your brain will feel too numb and sleepy to give a damn about consequences. This is even truer, since the game is slightly more polarized in terms of “right” and “wrong”, making it less morally provoking than its prequel.

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The art behind the game is basically identical to its forefather, featuring dark moody backgrounds and colors, now adorned with some nice dynamic lighting effects that add a welcome contrast to the sets. “Blade Runner-like” synthesizer based music also makes a comeback, providing the appropriate sci-fi ambience to the game. It is a shame that so little progress was made in this area, but even so, the game manages to be above average in this regard.

But it all comes down to: is it better than “Deus Ex”? The answer is no. It isn’t better, but it can hardly be described as worse. It’s like a different approach to the same motif. Even so, I remain true to my convictions: Warren Spector tried to create a new formula, instead of developing a cash-making, easy-to-produce sequel; in some aspects he succeeded, in others he did not. Like the first “Deus Ex”, “Invisible War” is as promising as it is disappointing, a realm of possibilities that are never fully developed and that would only be fully fledged in future games… But, if you think about it, that’s what sets Warren Spector’s games apart from the rest: they are a visionary testament of what is to come.

Overall: 3/5