Archive for June, 2009

Wave Foam – “A Last Ray of Hope Dwindles”

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Call me cynic, skeptic or plain fatalist, but I don’t like where the industry is headed. Especially, when you look at the mainstream big hitters. While browsing in Destructoid, I found this article on how PS3 exclusives don’t sell. Basically it bogs down to this: of all the great PS3 exclusives, only one passed the one million mark in actual sales… and that was the derivative “Resistance – Fall of Man”. This fact is disturbing for two reasons.

Firstly, this means people prefer the typical Xbox360 exclusive over Sony’s. I’m sorry to say, but no gruff military game like “Gears of War” can measure up to the quality of a game like “Uncharted – Drake’s Fortune” or “Metal Gear Solid 4”. Sure, they’re all blockbusters, and in a sense, they’re all pieces of shallow entertainment, but PS3 exclusives show the backing of a company that is willing to pay for certain standards that aren’t usually present in Microsoft’s games. Decent narrative and aesthetic assets for instance. Even “Heavenly Sword” and “Lair”, games with a fair share of problems on an execution of level, show a greater deal of identity and artistic merit than any “Halo” or “Mass Effect” could ever hope to achieve. However, the latter sell, while the former don’t. This tells me that gamers are backing the wrong horse, and are severely lacking in the taste department. There’s nothing wrong with Microsoft’s games, mind you, I love them as much as the next guy, but Sony is giving us more than just mind numbing action games… yet no one is paying attention to that difference.

"Gears of War 2" or "Killzone 2"? Do we really want to get stuck with this choice?

"Gears of War 2" or "Killzone 2" - do we really want to get stuck with this choice?

The second reason why this is a problem comes from the fact that Sony is the only of the three hardware console producers that has been paying a lot of money to produce quality content. And not just on a mainstream level, but also in small and medium-sized ventures, such as Q-Games’ (“PixelJunk Eden”) and ThatGameCompany’s (“flOw”, “flower”) downloadable titles. By not buying any of these games, gamers are saying it’s not worth producing and designing them, which will eventually lead Sony to stop sponsoring such ventures. Even if you do not agree that Sony’s games offer something more than Microsoft’s, you must concur that video-games need diversity and wealth of content. But if this trend continues there will be none, and there’s a very strong chance than in a few years time, you won’t get “The Last Guardian” or “Heavy Rain”-like games. Instead you will only have the choice to buy Microsoft’s “Halo’s” and “Gear’s of War” or Sony’s “Killzone’s” and “Resistance’s”, because companies will figure those are the only game-types people will buy. I don’t know about you, but that’s a prospect that doesn’t sound good to me.

Wave Foam – “On Triviality”

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GameTrailer's "Bonus Round"

It is in the very nature of online media to overly discuss that which bears no importance in the long run. It’s to expect, I guess, considering its online, minute to minute, free access, and the ad-money-per-link business model that supports it. Bottom-line is, debate rages about the most useless, unimportant subjects, and when it comes to video-games, the greatest of these hideous topics is the “console wars” – that tiresome discussion that leads nowhere and informs no one. I would have thought that semi-professional and semi-serious programs, such as Gametrailers’ “Bonus Round” could be a bit more captivating and interesting than to watch the constant spewing of forum rant by fan-boys, but then again I have been known to be wrong on many occasions.

The E3 sum up was filled with fan-boy oriented debates on “who won?”, with abstract grades flying around – Michael Pachter on Sony’s conference, “I have to grade Sony on two levels, one on substance, one on presentation. Substance ‘A’, presentation ‘C’.” – and unreflected affirmations that’d be shocking to any viewer with a brain to speak of – Dan Hsu on “Metroid M”, “It feels as we’re taping to Samus Aran’s more human side […] this wasn’t a quick cash in.” The depth of their analysis was simply baffling.

Microsoft's Project Natal Commercials

Microsoft's Project Natal Commercials

To top it all off, their newest episode is totally dedicated to new input methods and interfaces in consoles. It’s nothing more than an apparently credible take on who’s got the coolest controller/interface/online-features in the ongoing console war. They’re not even discussing the games that have been, or are being developed with these new technologies… oh no, they’re discussing the technology and its commercial potential for casual gamers. Never mind the fact that no good games ever come from these new technologies (unless you want to call “Wii Sports” a game instead of a mini-game collection thingy), and that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo just keep wasting money by cramming useless shit we already have access to in our faster, more intuitive personal computer into their consoles.  Forget that, people want to know who’s got the most unresponsive piece of virtual hardware. Is it natal, the magical wand or the motion plus? WHO CARES? Meanwhile, there’s a shortage on new games and game ideas. The media, like the developers, insists on missing the point.

You can watch the latest “Bonus Round” episodes by following this link.

Wave Foam

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa", Katsushika Hokusai

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa", Katsushika Hokusai

I finally caved in and decided to do a daily blog. These entries, called “Wave Foam”, will take the form of small reflections on news I encounter in my daily internet read. For obvious reasons, they will be much less substantial than my weekly updates, which I’ll try to keep unscathed by this new addition. Nevertheless, I will make these articles as incisive, provocatory, and (hopefully) interesting as all others. Hope you enjoy it.

State of the Art pt.2 – “Original Sin”

William Blake's "The Temptation and Fall of Eve"

Like any new means, when the video-game medium originated, it was an exciting, unexplored new world filled with promise. But like in any realm of the unknown, there were no guidelines on how to garner the potential of that vast reign of unfathomed possibilities, which lied feverishly in wait in the tips of programmers’ fingers. And it was precisely in that now distant moment of genesis, that the original sin of the video-game means was committed. The moment in which that glorious plain of infinite potential was transformed into the claustrophobic gallows of technological toys. But it was not a sin that came by chance, for it was the natural course of things taking its toll.

Video-games never were anything more than virtual shapes built on intrinsic webs of computer hardware and software. Such objects, much to our dismay, could only be crafted by engineers; with their front row seat in the creation of video-games, came the comprehensible urge to imprint a technological and scientific paradigm into them. Painters and sculptors would have surely thought differently, but alas, they knew not how to program in assembly. But even engineers were nothing more than modern craftsmen; they knew not how to mold video-games on their own, and thus had to seek outside influences for inspiration for that monumental task of creation.

Allan Alcorn's "Pong"

Inspiration eventually came from games: from sports and tennis, to board-games like monopoly or go; these were the defining models that shaped the medium. There were many reasons for that misled choice: from the playful nature of the original video-game applications (“Nimrod”, “OXO”, “Tennis for Two”, “Spacewar!”) and consoles (such as the pivotal Magnavox Odyssey and the later ATARI Pong), which seemed perfect for a younger demographic, to the estrangement that most adults had with computers, which made it impossible to reach different audiences, down to the fact that it was a language that engineers understood, whilst art for example, was something well beyond their cultural and academic background. With these two worlds conceptually intertwined at the very conception of the medium, video-games soon became the technological counterpart, or evolution if you will, to traditional games… and thus it was that the word “video-game” was born.

In a quiet instant, computer engineering companies – Capcom (originally named Japan Capsule Computers),  ATARI (which stemmed from Nolan Bushnell’s Syzygy Engineering), and game/toys/entertainment companies – Nintendo (which started in the hanafuda cards business), Sega (formerly named Standard Games, a company that built coin-operated amusements), Namco (initially devoted to building children rides), Konami (percussed by a jukebox rental and repair company) – had taken the leading role in the industry side of the medium, designing hardware and software applications. The origins of these companies subtly dictated their own orientations and the mind-sets of their creators, eventually determining what the video-game medium would stand for. Despite all the good that came from these and many other companies (e.g. the later Sony and Microsoft), they still ended up branding video-games with a specific image that, in the long term, has become prejudicial to their own business.

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The term video-game is not neutral or associated with a vaster conceptual ground, like Cinema or Music are; video-games are seen as nothing more than computer games made to entertain little kids and adolescents. Just think on how close the aesthetic of a vast majority of games is to that of toys, action figures and cartoon series. And how similar, on an abstract level, is the interaction of games to that of a board or sports game. How equally inexpressive all these mediums are on an emotional level. That is why games are never associated with a powerful cultural medium that can take on artistic forms and expressions. If you’ve ever been to a museum showing an interactive media work, you won’t see the term “game” or “video-game” written underneath. Yet if you see a conceptual film, the word film will surely be in its description. This is the type of prejudice that has become associated with the term game… a prejudice that, in my opinion, is completely understandable.

But what malicious archetype is this, so strong that it can dictate the complete lack of depth and maturity that is pervasive to such a potentially powerful medium? What is this thing that sucks up so much artistic vision and technical prowess, that we so rarely get to experience something that escapes its clutches? And how come so many visionary works are understated and underrated in a vast sea of glorified computer toys, that have become the de facto standard of the means?

It is the sin of games’ ludic paradigm.

[In the next part I will address the reasons why games shouldn’t be just “games” and why ludism is such a malicious influence on an artistic medium. In the coming articles I will continue delving on these issues and explore how everyone can help change the current video-game landscape.]

State of the Art pt.1 – “Balance of Power”

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Chris Crawford, despite being present at the very infancy of video-game development, achieved a thorough knowledge of the area, one that granted him a visionary insight over its future. In his book, “The Art of Computer Game Design”, he defined video-games, laid out the principles of game design (most of which stand today), delivered a possible games’ taxonomy out of a remarkably small number of titles, and even predicted how the industry would evolve, to a point only realized in the XXIst century – a heterogeneous marketplace (only possible today thanks to download services).

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But there’s another idea in his text, one far more provocative and stunning than any of the rest – the idea that in the old days of 16 color screens, kilobyte sized memory, and assembly programming, Chris Crawford already regarded video-games as Art. As he himself admits, video-games couldn’t be further from “a Shakespeare play, a Tchaikowsky symphony, or a Van Gogh self portrait”, and yet he could already perceive the video-game equivalent of such masterpieces possible in the means! However, twenty seven years down the road, and such a statute seems far from being consolidated. In fact, most of Crawford’s criticisms still stand today: “computer games are much like candy, comic books, and cartoons”, “artistic flair has heretofore been treated as subordinate to technical prowess”, and as he had predicted, the market is still overrun “with blockbuster games, spin-off games, remake games, and tired complaints that computer games constitute a vast wasteland.”

ico_cover

I, for one, believe he was right, the potential for video-games to become a rightful form of art exists. One look at games like “ICO”,  “Silent Hill 2”, “Gadget – Past as Future”, or my recently reviewed “Myst” and “D”, quickly reassures my heart that games can be Art. More so, the recent rise of the indie scene has allowed many new developers to find niche markets whose players have higher expectations for video-games – Jenova Chen’s “flower” and Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn’s “The Path” are but some of the most outstanding examples of this new trend.

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And yet, despite all theses advances, the same teenager oriented industry and ludic design models remain. Talking about art in the context of video-games is still, let’s face it, wishful thinking. The small beacons of light that I mentioned beforehand are minuscule when compared to the ever growing cloud of darkness that dominates games’ landscape. Players, in general, don’t want to play new games (just compare established franchises’ sales when faced with new IP’s, such as the recent EA fiasco) or even artistic ventures (see the sales of PSN titles, of which only “flOw” makes it to the top ten). Game designers themselves, show little interest in creating interactive art instead of glorified tech toys. Publishers and producers just back up where the money is: shooters, platformers, role-playing, sports, and casual games still eat up the gross of video-game’s productions, with original titles that step out of the boundaries of tried and true formulas and established genres being harder to find than a needle in a haystack. Journalists on the other hand, instead of defending artsy ventures and breakthrough original games, as a way of helping the means evolve by educating and cultivating gamers, insist on valloring mediocre games that apply template design models, such as “Killzone 2”, “GTA IV” or “Gears of War 2”. Everyone says these games are “more fun”. Art games, on the orther hand, aren’t. In fact the whole industry seems to measure itself upon this generic, abstract equation of “fun”. Back in the ATARI days, Chris Crawford said that “Computer games are much like candy, comic books, and cartoons”. They still are. Just serves to show how little games have changed in this quarter of a century.

[In the coming articles I will delve further on these issues and explore how everyone can help change the current video-game landscape]

D – “Deranged”

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Let’s be honest, “D” isn’t the type of game that will entertain you the way video-games usually do. It’s slow paced and introspective, and it simply isn’t meant to be fun in any way; it’s the sort of game that tries trying to engage players in a specific state of mind that doesn’t rely on actual pleasure, but in actual discomfort. In other words, it’s a true horror game.

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You play as Laura, the daughter of a renown doctor who, out of the blue, starts murdering innocent people in an L.A. hospital. The police ask her to investigate why he’s gone mad, but once she enters the hospital she comes upon a strange portal. Like Laura, once you step through that portal, the comfortable, familiar reality you live in will suddenly crack open, and you’ll plunge into a nightmarish world concocted by her fathers’ mind. At first it seems you’ve only entered an old manor, but you’ll immediately notice that something about it feels distorted. It’s eerie and oppressive in every way, from the austere, claustrophobic design of the manor itself, built in weighty slab stones, to its dark baroque furniture and somber decoration patterns. As you slowly trot about, step after step after step, the sounds of footsteps echoing through the deserted halls, your eyes examining your surroundings, you come to understand that, like the dreamy fabric of your mind’s thoughts, the old house pays little heed to the enclosing limitations of physical reality. Its architecture and design is odd and impossible to replicate in the real world, not to mention that it’s filled with strange contraptions and deadly traps filled with corpses. And, like a typical haunted house, there’s always something odd and disconcerting waiting to jump out when you slowly turn the next corner.

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Exploring that strange realm is handled like in “Myst“: a lonely adventure game in which you go about solving puzzles to find out more about the story that has passed. But whereas “Myst” strived on players’ sense of discovery and awe when faced with its aesthetic beauty and hidden secrets, “D” prefers to instill an eerie atmosphere of anticipation and dread face its hidden revelations. Inside that dark-stricken world, the atmosphere is cut-throat, with the slow tempo of the electronic soundtrack building up tension and giving emotional density to the limited detail of the pre-rendered visuals. But when there’s a new narrative revelation, you can see Laura’s face exploding with emotion (such boldness in an 1995 video-game!), and the game shifts into a barrage of super-fast, surreal imagery, which, like the memories of an amnesiac, are completely fragmented, only adding to the insanity and madness that surrounds you. The aesthetic and emotional contrast between those two moments is overwhelming, as you go from a vacant world of dead grays and quiet loneliness to a torrent of violent, blood-stricken images accompanied by a pounding soundtrack. This is Kenji Eno’s work at its best, crafting specific moods for the player to sink in, so that the game plays the player as if he were a piano: gently pacing him with a melancholic tune, quieting him until he settles in, only to then have him instantly revived with a powerful new crescendo that takes him to an emotional climax. It’s almost as if Eno, who sports an extensive musical background [of which you can read more about in Dieubussy’s profile and interview, here], crafted the game as you’d compose music, trying to convey strong emotional impressions and abstract rationales, instead of devising something that could be deconstructed literally.

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That is what ultimately elevates “D” to a horror masterpiece, the fact that its authors understood that the fundamental pillar of a horror piece lies in a sense of unknown and illogical, that can put players in an uncomfortable mindset which eventually leads to fear and foreboding.  Even when the game comes into a conclusion, its mysteries are never fully revealed; what is unhooded serves only to add a whole new layer of interpretation – a frightening allegory over man’s transformation into monster – but its revelations never change the amorphous, bizarre  and surreal nature of the tale. Nothing ever makes much sense in “D”, and the game is all the better because of it. At the very least, one must acknowledge “D’s” impact in its genre, with its tentaclous influences reaching the very best of the genre, from “Resident Evil” (the wonderful first person perspective doorway opening and stair-climbing sequences) to “Silent Hill” (in terms of the surreal ambiance). But “D” is a masterpiece by its own merit, a game that accomplishes that which so oft eludes video-games: the capability to provoke strong emotional reactions in players. And “D” can invoke in you such a host of visceral, sub-dermal and subconscious responses, that it will give you a whole new appreciation for horror video-games.

score: 5/5