Archive for May, 2009

Snatcher – “Childish Fiction”

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Back in the 80’s, games couldn’t stand further from cinema; while film had already achieved its pinnacle as an art form, the state of the art for the video-game realm was embodied in the likes of Miyamoto’s “Legend of Zelda” or “Super Mario Bros.”. Good games not withstanding, these works were meant for young kids and teenagers, their cultural and artistic value being relatively small, if at all existent. It was then expected that video-game developers would turn, sooner or later, to cinema as a way of finding inspiration for video-games. The first steps in that direction were given in the late 80’s; amongst those early visionaries was Hideo Kojima.

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“Metal Gear” (1987) was Kojima’s first video-game, an ode to Hollywood pop references of  the 80’s, with “Rambo” serving as a major inspiration, but also borrowing elements from “Escape from New York” or “Terminator”. “Snatcher” was its followup, but then, Kojima chose to pay an hômage to one of the greatest movies of all times – “Blade Runner“. It’s impossible not to think  too much about it, as every element in “Snatcher” seems to derive at some level, from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece: from the dark cyber-punk depiction of the future, to the ever-looming menace of a race of killer cyborgs (though in “Snatcher” they resemble more closely Cameron’s “Terminators” than the actual replicants), down to main characters’ personalities and visual characterization.

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As an unofficial interactive translation to “Blade Runner”, “Snatcher” is a success. The player embarks on a noir mystery, searching for clues regarding the main character’s past, while simultaneously hunting down killer robots that mask themselves as humans. Despite the game being incredibly linear, there seems to have been a great effort in making players feel like a true Private Investigator, by making them solve clever criminal puzzles, through the discovery of each piece of evidence and its consequent interpretation. And though, in essence, the game plays like a simple text adventure game, it makes excellent use of its sparse aesthetic elements, using simple animations as a form of emulating film, and upping the tempo with well placed sound effects and music, which can heighten the sense of discovery of a particular clue or anticipate a nearby plot-twist. There are also a few  shooting sequences to punctuate the investigation; these add a much needed surprise factor to whenever a cyborg is found, further enhancing tension while the player is investigating clues.

It is obvious that “Snatcher” goes as far as the medium could go at the time it was designed. Kojima creates his own devious world filled with his trademark post modern humor, and all these little references to Hollywood cinematography, but he never ceases to impregnate it with a consistency and level of detail that simply doesn’t exist in most games today, let alone those from twenty years ago. He also does a thorough background search on the scientific, social and political themes that he then molds and solidifies into an arresting thriller, filled with intrigue and drama. Like all of Kojima’s games, “Snatcher” elevates the writing quality of the means, in a search for the narrative depth that we grew accustomed to in cinema.

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And yet, one can only get a bitter taste when Kojima so often invites a comparison between his video-games and the 7th art; a comparison to which all his games fall on the short end of. “Snatcher’s” aesthetic, while clearly inspired by the noir-ish ambiance of the movie, features warm color palettes [more prevalent in the later versions than in the less detailed, yet more consistent, MSX original] and an upbeat electro-jazz soundtrack, which clash severely with the gloomy dystopian mood. Kojima’s writing, though light-years ahead of his peers, is polluted with Anime tropes and immature sexual jokes that can only be seen as childish, especially when compared to the somber nature of “Blade Runner’s” drama. Not to mention that the most important story layer of “Blade Runner” – Philip K. Dick’s own existential dilemmas – is completely absent from the video-game; in exchange, we get a story about an egomaniacal soviet scientist who wants to take over the world. In film, we get a powerful existentialist science fiction drama, but in the video-game version, we get a Saturday morning Japanese cartoon… sadly, it’s the story of our means.

score: 4/5

Myst – “Journeying Through Ages Past”

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When I first laid my eyes on the Miller brothers’ “Myst”, I knew it was something different. I couldn’t quite grasp what it was at the time – I was only twelve you see – but it was powerful enough to stay lurking in the back of my brain for all these years. My father, a man who appreciates cinema and classical music, but thoroughly belittles video-games, looked at “Myst” and sensed the same thing I now do: amazement. He couldn’t understand it, just as I couldn’t have, but he perceived enough to know it was special. And special “Myst” is, of that there is no doubt. It is as special as only a handful of video-games have ever been.

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Like the player, the game’s main character is literally thrown into an island covered in mist, surrounded by an endlessly sprawling sea.  Left entirely alone, the player is invited to embark on a voyage of discovery through a strange world, in hopes of deciphering its origins, and the reasons behind its emptiness and desolation. Faced with the ceaseless solitude, you can hear the gentle sound of the waves hitting shore, the sea breeze blowing softly, even bird’s chanting at times; your mind gently enters a state of calm and introspection. As you explore the scenery, lulled by its soothing ambiance, you encounter a dreamy realm, filled with breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery, but also an eerie mix of human constructions, from an impressive dome of classical architecture, to a sunken ship made of stone, not to mention a Jules Vernesque flying rocket. These remnants of the island’s inhabitants are the narrators of the story, as each building holds inside its history, either literally inscribed in it, in the writings of lost journals, or present in more subtle ways: imbued in its architecture, decoration or secret puzzles.

The puzzles thereby serve as the perfect metaphor for the unveiling of the hidden mysteries of the land. Solving them is a delight, not only because the game’s simple interface and elegant design makes them brilliant exercises of deductive reasoning, but also because they blend beautifully in the landscape, becoming a seamless part of that world. Simply put, every image, sound and object in “Myst” is a clue, making the aesthetic itself a part of the puzzle, a physical materialization of the secrets of the realms of “Myst”. The haunting atmosphere also becomes the embodiment of that story of ages past, with its atmospheric soundtrack (Robyn Miller) and realistic sound effects (Chris Brandkamp) serving as a natural complement to the surreal imagery.

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“Myst” is a spatial painting that players are invited to explore with their senses, but also an enigma which they must decipher with their minds. A hypnotizing interactive museum built in a world of utopia, where players are enticed to unveil the shrouding mystery that covers its past. More than anything, it’s a journey through many different, fantastic universes, a mesh of places where magic and technology merge into physical marvels that one can only observe in wonder; places where the most idyllic dreams of men have become a reality… All of this, condensed into an arresting piece of interactive entertainment and art. In other words, a Masterpiece.

score: 5/5

Castle Crashers – “Empty Nostalgia”

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Video-game revivalism is in. Thanks to on-line download services, gamers now have access to all those childhood classics that they cherished, or missed out on. More so, smaller development companies have started to cash in on that retro-spirit, in hopes of reaching vast audiences with low-budget titles available in download services. A return to the past is usually welcome – going back to simpler game designs, sustained only by the intricate quality of its interactivity, instead of its next-gen graphics or physic engines. But not all retro-revivalism is welcome. Video-games have evolved in the last years. Surely not as much as some (me included) might have wanted, but they have, for all intents and purposes, evolved. “Castle Crashers'” developers (Dan Paladin and Tom Fulp) however, seem to take advantage of the lack of criticism surrounding retro-gaming, to produce simplistic games that when properly dissected, show how empty and retrograde their game-design philosophies really are.

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Simply put, there’s nothing new about “Castle Crashers”. It’s a bare knuckles “Golden Axe” clone without the dark fantasy ambiance, a mindless brawler without the polish and challenge arcade games excel at… it’s, well, utterly redundant and uninteresting. Nevermind the fact that the its authors seem to take pleasure in exposing the shallowness of their venture, through their crude humor and infantile, cartoonish aesthetic; the bottom line is that “Castle Crashers” is simply not that good of an action game. Not that it doesn’t have its fair share of well executed ideas – level design is sometimes inspired, and its RPG character levelling is simple, but effective – but nothing it does well actually deserves mentioning or praise. Of course, the answers to all my criticisms could be “co-op”, to which I’d reply, if you don’t take pleasure in playing a game solo, why would it make it better if you play it in the exact same way with someone? Co-op needs to be inserted in games with the purpose of allowing cooperative or competitive efforts. “Castle Crashers'” idea of cooperation is bashing enemies together.  Now, this can be entertaining, but it’s entertaining because you get to play with your friends. You should compliment your friends, not the game.

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Nothing about “Castle Crashers” is actually any good. If it were released a few years back, it would be seen as a quirky game, but little else. So many, many classic games have already done what “Castle Crashers” does well, but with much more creativity and care to detail, that it makes no sense to even look it as anything more than a glorified de-make.  Sure, its on-line features are a blessing, but today you have access to many of the classic games that inspired “Castle Crashers” available for download, sometimes even with online play. So why settle with the demeaning qualities of a copy, when you can get the superiority of the original, for a smaller price?

Project Zero II – “Dark Corners”

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Japanese folklore is riddled with ghost stories, dark tales of the occult about strange rituals that occur somewhere in the long forgotten villages of the Japanese countryside, where the light of rationalism hasn’t yet shun way obscurantism. To westerners such as myself, these tales are bizarre and shocking, reveling in a paraphernalia of symbols and religious undertones of which we have but the shallowest of understandings. Their inherent estrangement to our cultural and aesthetic frame of reference makes them intriguing and fascinating, not to mention particularly effective in the conveying of fear. Thanks to the success of films such as “Ringu” and “Ju-On”, these tales have become obligatory pop-references around the world. Unfortunately, in the video-game landscape, with its regional and linguist protectionism, horror-themed Japanese works are a rarity to those who live in the left half of the globe. Even “Silent Hill“, which shares a spiritual relationship with traditional forms of Japanese Horror, dilutes it in a sea of western influenced ideas and themes. It’s for this reason that video-game series like “Project Zero” and “Siren” are somewhat special, as they are the few glimpses of traditional Japanese horror that we have access to. In that regard, “Project Zero II – Crimson Butterfly” is as close to that specific universe as we’ll probably ever get.

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“Project Zero II” is a tragic tale of horror, featuring a pair of twins who, one day, wander around a forest, only to find themselves trapped in a ghost town, named “All God’s Village”, which… no longer exists. It’s similar, on many levels, to its predecessor, featuring a traditional tale about sacrifice, the upholding of tradition, the respect for higher powers, and its inevitable clash with each individual’s spirit and feelings. However, this time around, the story focuses more coherently on the relationship between the main characters (the two siblings), achieving greater emotional impact and depth in characterization. It’s post-ICO in that way, but whereas in Ueda’s masterpiece the love relationship was implied in narrative and deepened through interaction, “Crimson Butterfly” settles with the former. Despite that, putting emotional drive on the forefront of a game is rare, especially considering the delicate nature of “Project Zero’s” female protagonists.

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Exploring “All God’s Village” is facing the dark and the oppressive: the dead silence of the surrounding woods is only matched by the decrepit nature of the ancient village, with its crumbling edifices casting their shadows over the scarce moonlight. The dirty halls of the houses pave room for an astonishing mise-en-scéne, with careful lighting patterns illuminating the dark corners of the haunted halls and traditional Japanese decoration establishing the set’s mood with consistency and attention to detail. Akira Nishimura, art designer, accomplished a real feat here, by being able to produce such an intricate set, while resorting to a relatively small budget.

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However, as is so common in the means, things get fiddly on a purely interactive level. Whilst Makoto Shibata (director) and his “Project Zero” team show that they’ve come to understand how traditional Japanese horror works in literature and cinema, they fail in properly adapting its structural form and aesthetic to the interactive dimension. Though “Project Zero II” is, most of the time, a by the numbers, well paced action-adventure game, with simple puzzles and exploration sequences, its main grab comes from its combat system, implemented by the “Camera Obscura”, a camera capable of exorcising demons and other-worldly figures. Never mind the verisimilitude of such an item, the bottom line is that it works as a way of putting the player face to face with the ghosts that the game throws at him. And by using the first person perspective, the game heightens the subjective feel of the apparitions, playing with players’ tension and making them all the more conscious of the game’s protagonist’s sensation upon encountering such spirits. However, it seems the game designers thought this game mechanic to be too good to avoid exploring to its fullest, and so, to what was a natural, aesthetically unobtrusive battle system, they added a plethora of game-y interfaces and power ups, not to mention a point driven level up system, as ways to enhance the system’s ludic aspects. Suffice to say, they hurt the dramatic core of the game’s narrative and its aesthetic cohesiveness, adding an excessively noisy design layer to what should obviously be a moody experience.

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Unlike “Silent Hill”, “Project Zero” isn’t able to come to full fruition as a horror video-game, mostly due to its lack of maturity in the interactive department, with its game-y ideas breaking away the foreboding atmosphere that the art design and soundtrack so laboriously work to achieve. However, “Crimson Butterfly” can still translate to the video-game means most of what makes traditional Japanese Horror unique, by serving as the perfect embodiment of its aesthetic and narrative expression. That is what ultimately allows players to be taken to that unpleasant place to which they dare not go: the dark corners of the human mind, those dark recesses of evil, where fears take the shape of monsters and the dead shadows of the past come back to life… that frightening place where we must face our sins.

score: 4/5

 

Takayoshi Sato Interview

It’s not in my habit for me to link to other blogs or sites, as a way to propagate news or otherwise irrelevant pieces of information on the videogame media landscape. I simply assume people who take an interest in my blog have access to the same information as I have, and are smart enough to select their own dose of internet dailies.  However,  sometimes one must break his own rules, and this is that day for me. As you may or may not have noticed, I nurture a big reverence towards “Silent Hill”, a series of games which I believe to be mostly unmatched in the History of games, for the complexity of its human dilemmas, its brilliant aesthetic background, and its success as an interactive work. My dear, dear friend Dieubussy [who besides being someone I hold dear, is, hands down, the most cultured, knowledgeable individual that I have ever met, when it comes to video-game’s history and art (and many other areas)] has had the pleasure of interviewing one of the geniuses behind the “Silent Hill” series, Takayoshi Sato (CG director and director of “Silent Hill 2”).  Read the interview, in English, here, it’s probably the best advise I have ever given in this blog.