Archive for June, 2008

King Kong – “The Meaning of the Word *Cinematic*”

For years now games have been trying to find the right way to convey a range of emotions similar to those present in other art forms, specially cinema. Though cut-scenes and FMV abound in modern videogames, they can be seen as embodiments of a language unnatural to interactive media, which, comprehensively, developers do not fully understand. Still, these elements managed to bring depth to videogame narrative when the medium lacked proper tools to do so. “Final Fantasy”, “Resident Evil” or even “Metal Gear Solid” are good examples on how a more cinematic language can help fill in the narrative gaps laid down by otherwise simplistic gameplay features and expressionless 3d models. But this is the 21st century, games’ audiovisual interfaces are now bordering life-like, and it’s about time developers learn how to harness that power to convey more than just the dull notion of “Fun”. This is where Michel Ancel’s (“Rayman”, “Beyond Good and Evil”) “King Kong” comes into play.

For some reason, games usually fail in conducting the player through the roller-coaster ride of emotions typically associated summer blockbuster movies. Mostly, I think, because designers still aren’t able to strategically define each set-piece’s rhythm, leading the player from moments of calm, anticipation and suspense, into adrenaline fueled climaxes. This is a consequence of gameplay oriented design, that focuses too much on the player interaction (and the “Fun” factor that ensues), instead of a much broader notion of experience, that takes gameplay into account, but complements it with audiovisual stimuli, which add depth to the emotional response of the player. In my view, that is why movie-game adaptations fail: they get the basic notion of the movie, translate it into gameplay mechanisms, create an interface according to the conceptual artwork, and glue it all together with some shabby cutsenes or promotional movie clips; in the process, the movie’s emotional impact is lost, and with it all of its artistic expression. But not in “King Kong”.

The game’s unfolding follows with scrutiny Peter Jackson’s movie, from the moment the filming crew lands on “Skull Island”, a hidden paradise where pre-historic fauna and flora still exist. The player takes Jack’s perspective, using first person POV, as he explores “Skull Island” in all its splendors and dangers; and King Kong’s, in action adventure portions, as he tries to save Ann from the Island perils.

In terms of Jack’s part, instead of taking the predictable road of allowing the player to shoot everything on sight that moves, as in the traditional FPS genre, the game prompts the player to explore and use his environment to survive the attacks of centipedes, demon adoring natives, and, of course, famished dinosaurs (including a family of Colgate smiling T-Rexes). Survive. As in survival horror. You’ll run, duck, hide, throw spears and bones, and even use the environment to aid you, all so that you can survive. Sure, there are some action portions where you have access to real weapons, but even then, the game casts you in a position of inferiority towards your enemies, never alowing you to feel comfort or power as you do in a shooter. For instance, when you face the T-Rexes, though you have a bucket load of machine gun ammo, it causes no impact on the large critters, except for the fact that it reminds them that you’d make a great snack. The result is the aforementioned roller coaster ride, a journey through hell, with all its ups and downs, where all you can do is run and hope for the best. In that sense, the game fully embodies its movie counterpart expression.

Kong’s side of the story is not as well thought off, even if it’s explored in a genre all too familiar to Ancel. The first Kong levels are unusually cinematic, with great camera-work and fast pacing serving platforming based chasing sequences (a la “Prince of Persia”), as Kong tries to catch up with Ann. Unfortunately, from there on out, these sequences degenerate into mindless button mashing feasts, as Kong has to get rid of those T-Rexes, in classical beat’em up style. These sequences become all the worse as the game approaches its “Empire State Building Finale”, with the superficial battle system completely worn out by then, and some crazy camera view points that become too cumbersome. Kong’s scenes feel, above all, as a compromise with hard-core gamers that need a steady fix of action packed sequences in order to maintain interest in a game, and in the end, they do little to add value to the movie’s translation. Perhaps if the levels were better designed, they would’ve made sense as a complement to Jack’s adventure, but that just isn’t the case here.

Ar least, it’s all done with style and grace, achieving a perfect depiction of the environments present in the movie, using gorgeous lighting schemes, beautiful multi-layer background compositions, and a total absence of HUD/menu induced noise, just pure visual magic. Add the use of Newton Howard’s composition (that set the tone for the scenes in the game as they did in the movie), and voice acting by the movie’s cast (filled with precious details like Adrien Brody’s gasps when the player runs too much, or Jack Black’s silly comments on how “Amazing” Skull Island is), and you’ve got the perfect audio-visual translation of a movie into a game.

“King Kong” delivers where everyone else has failed, in a wonderful translation of a movie into a game that actually works in its context, and not by merely serving as an appendix, but as a full out audiovisual interactive experience. It isn’t perfect: Kong’s episodes break an otherwise smooth pacing, and some elements repeat themselves too much, but even so, the game manages to propel the player into discovering a wealth of emotions undeveloped in games. Of course, this is blockbuster territory, so don’t expect life changing experiences, just an adventure filled with danger and excitement, a fun-fair ride into the heart of “King Kong’s” domain. If only all movie adaptations were this good…

Overall: 4/5

Silent Hill 0rigins – “In my restless dreams, I see that town… Silent Hill. You promised you’d take me there again some day… but you never did.”

“Was it all just a dream?” Maybe “Silent Hill” was just that: a dream… a dream surrounded by the misty haze of a medium far too young and shallow to understand the true value behind Toyama’s masterpiece. Only by acknowledging this fact can one understand the often convoluted story behind the series. Had Konami Japan understood the (artistic and commercial) value of the series, I doubt they would have been so eager in wasting the series potential with such a lenient production policy (at least Sony understood, hiring Toyama for the later “Siren” series). So, what is the story behind Silent Hill? First, a revolutionary game, that is the epitome of psychological horror (SH1); then a game that builds on that basis and adds a twisted storyline and aesthetic that in my opinion are worthy of a David Lynch movie (SH2); an uninspired sequel that follows the event of the first chapter, but that still manages to retain the same level of dramatic efficiency and production quality of its predecessors (SH3); and finally, a deviation of the series, that not only was unable to take the series forward, as it also failed in replicating some of the more important standards fans came to expect (SH4). [And if you’re wondering why I don’t mention the movie, it’s because I don’t think it’s worth mentioning… at all.]

Alas, a prequel is made… by an outsider, U.K. based studio: Climax. Let me start by saying that I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes, having to uphold to so much, and with so little experience to do so. Just think about it: in case they didn’t stick to canon, they would be criticized for not maintaining the series core values, and if they opted for a strict following of the previous games, they would be criticized for not adding any value to the franchise. No win situation. Climax chose the second road, and “Silent Hill 0rigins” ends up looking like what you’ve come to expect of “Silent Hill”: the same foggy town, with its empty streets, hospital, motel, and creepy monsters wandering about, the same camera angles coupled with a noise filter, the same eerie soundtrack. But, sadly, as you explore the dreamy landscape, you’ll notice the subtle differences, and you’ll realize they were as important as everything else in creating the horror masterpiece devised by Keiichiro Toyama. Not that Climax doesn’t try hard to embody everything that is “Silent Hill”, they do, but the fact remains that a copycat is only as good as his ability to perceive what made the original work of art grand… and Climax doesn’t cut it.

“God is in the details.” Small details, the type of which you’d thought wouldn’t matter, but do. A simple example: a crucial aspect in any horror game is the surprise factor, the ability to catch the player off-guard (not necessarily to make him jump off his seat). In the first chapters of the franchise, there were a lot of unique scenes where the designers changed the field of play, messing with your head’s preconceptions. For instance: the brilliant cat-scene in “Silent Hill”, where you could hear a noise coming from a locker, and when you opened it, a cat sprung out, only to be killed by a demon-kid (or whatever you wanna call those things); later, when you entered the other-world, the scene would repeat, a noise coming from the locker, but only this time, when you got the nerve to open it, the entrails of the cat where laying there. These small episodes were crucial in placing the player in an uncomfortable place, where every move ended with unpredictable results. In “0rigins”, there isn’t anything like that, everything moves along smoothly and predictably: it’s all straight run o’ the mill, “Silent Hill” 101.

The one thing Climax missed that is sure to stick out as sore thumb is storytelling. The “Silent Hill” universe always inhabited the realm of the surreal, where ambiguity and mystery went hand in hand. “0rigins”, on the other hand, starts off with the worst of premises: to explain the events behind the first game. Now, you might not have noticed, but “explain” doesn’t really mix with “surreal”, “ambiguous” or “mysterious”. Besides that, “Silent Hill 3” had already “explained” the first “Silent Hill” for the average player, so why try and explain more? No good could ever come from that mindset. The result is sad, at best: scenes pan out in predictable ways, with none of the edginess, creepiness or surrealism you’d expect; dialogs are poorly written and straightforward (which is probably the worst adjective for a “Silent Hill” game). Everything is just so linear, shallow and… well, I’m gonna say it, “American”, that it manages to destroy any sense of strangeness that was still left in that world. Adding to that, all of the “explanations” in the game are completely unimportant, serving only as canon fodder for the overly zealous fan to devour.

On a design note, there are some very good aspects to Climax’s venture, that go as far as correcting some of the mistakes in the third and fourth chapter. A higher focus on puzzles and exploration, a better use of sound and especially, of Akira Yamaoka’s brilliant scores (what would “Silent Hill” be without them?), and a battle system that is, for the most part, able to walk the thin line between responsiveness and clunckiness, i.e. not responsive enough to allow the player to feel either overly confident about killing monsters, and not frustrating to the point of making him throw his console out the window.

The first two “Silent Hills” were some of the best games ever designed, and that is an admittedly hard lineage to uphold, and as expected, “0rigins” utterly fails in doing so. Yet, it does manage to copy most of the formula of the series, making it a very pleasing game for the hardcore fans, as long as they don’t expect to find herein the finer subtleties that made “Silent Hill” a grand masterpiece. “0rigins” is what it is: a mimic of a great work of art, that is as shallow and linear as the original was subtle and unique. The hard truth is that “Silent Hill” is growing stale and old, and the time will come when one must start wondering if we’ll ever see such joyous days as the ones in 1999, when “Silent Hill” first appeared… here’s hoping that it wasn’t all just a dream.

Overall: 2/5