Archive for October, 2009

“Why we need a ‘Citizen Kane’…”

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A few weeks ago, IGN editor Michael Tomsen committed one of the worst sins a game journalist can commit: he reminded the world that video games still are just games for kids. Invited by ABC news to come forth with a name for “our” <<Citizen Kane>>, he chose “Metroid Prime” as the most eligible candidate for that honor. I won’t bother you with the justifications he used to back up his choice, as Anthony Burch, in his somewhat truculent style, already addressed them with the necessary criticism in this interesting read. Suffice to say, IGN’s editor might’ve been better off not saying anything, instead of spewing such ridiculous statements, that serve only to show the lack of culture most game journalists possess.

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The formulation of this question is not new. Where is the <<Citizen Kane>> of video games? This problem is very ambiguous, and the way in which it was phrased can lead to a host of misinterpretations on what is being discussed. The most important disclaimer in this regard is – I am not, in any way, about to compare cinema with video games, they are different mediums with different expressions, and we would do well to accept the differences. The truly relevant question which lies hidden in the “Citizen Kane” conundrum is this: what video game can you show the world that will convince it of the medium’s legitimacy and maturity as a means of expression?

Whether someone chose “Citizen Kane” or “Metropolis” or “Nosferatu” or “Birth of a Nation” or any other film for the comparison is irrelevant. The reason why someone thought of “Citizen Kane” probably derives from its relative closeness to present day, and to the profuse knowledge most of us possess regarding film and its history (as opposed to the illiteracy we show towards older art forms). It is easy for us to track the relevance of film as an art form as a consequence of the study of certain works, in which “Citizen Kane” plays a major role. Also, film, being a product of the XXth century, emerged in a somewhat similar social and economic climate to that of video games, making its process of maturing from a purely commercial business to a wider, more encompassing artistic medium, seem replicable in our means. This is why we should crave a “Citizen Kane” – we want video games to achieve the same status as cinema did, and so we await eagerly the prophetic light of a piece of art so profound, that it can turn the blindest of skeptics into an illuminate, devote follower of video games. But what  features made “Citizen Kane” relevant enough as to establish film as more than a form of entertainment? The answers are many and highly subjective. What follows are my own answers, and anyone is free to give theirs to help the debate.

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The most important of “Citizen Kane’s” qualities is, without a shadow of a doubt, it being a true film. It isn’t a piece of theatrical performance set in an intangible stage, it isn’t a novel with its text hammered into spoken words by both narrator and actors, no! It was pure image and sound in narrative form. The cinematic language employed in Welles’ masterpiece was so powerful and visionary, that it would take more than a quarter of a century for someone to even consider updating it. Welles took all the potential of cinema and attempted fulfilling it, by virtuously condensing a story into an expressive piece of celluloid, captured thanks to a beautiful (and revolutionary) cinematography, exquisite soundtrack,  and an outstanding work in terms of actor performance. Every framing, mise-en-scéne and camera movement serves as a vessel of metaphor for the telling of Kane’s life – these are the only true words of the language used by this audiovisual book. This is what eventually lent artistic legitimacy to cinema – “Citizen Kane” was a work that could not be replicated in other formats without losing its greatest strengths as a work of art.

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The second, sometimes forgotten, quality of “Citizen Kane”, stems from its universal, perpetual appeal. “Kane” may bear a special figure as a man, being a magnate like we have seen so few, but his story was personal, human… familiar. We can all relate to his life in some way, to his desperate attempts at happiness through all the wrong ways, his wild spiral of triumph and decay, his moral and emotional contradictions as a human being, his ever frustrated obsessions with money, power, love and immortality. Forget the outstanding nature of the characters, this film addresses life, period. These are the challenges that all our lives hold in storage for us, our own existentialist anxieties and psychological dramas. And “Kane” doesn’t touch these subjects with superficiality or carelessness, it is pondered, ambiguous, profound and life-like. As Roger Ebert put it: “Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.”

Last, but not least, there is the matter of it being a work that is unique, personal, authorial, unbound by genre conventions or pre-determined notions of what films should be, and, of course, not oriented in any way with a commercial logic. It was not only ahead of its time, as it was honest and true to its authors’ visions. This is their tale, their ideas, their craftsmanship, their art. This is a movie about their message, and it’s that notion which governs everything in it, from the seemingly meaningless stage prop to each earth-shattering dialogue. This is probably why it wasn’t a commercial success and why it was shunned by the producers of the time (despite marginal profit!), eventually leading to a troublesome dispute with Welles throughout the remainder of his career, with several unauthorized edits to his works that, still today, rob them of their artistic value. “Citizen Kane” is a work of art, something which in the world of money… is usually misunderstood. Despite all this, “Citizen Kane” lives on still today, thanks to the continuous recognition by many critics and scholars (heck, even the Academy recognized it with several Oscar nominations!), and by a growing interest of the public in the work throughout the 1950’s and beyond. It became a symbol – a popular one at that, I might add – that film can be art. Many haven’t seen it (and if you’re one of those, stop right now, and go watch it), but everyone knows that “Citizen Kane” is considered the greatest film ever made.

Screenshot of "Citizen Kane", which the American Film Institute named the greatest movie of all time

Now returning to what lead us to this film. Where is our <<Citizen Kane>>?  What video game has become a symbol of our medium’s maturity and legitimacy as art? So far, I’d say none. No one sees, and rightfully so, video games as artistic objects. Perhaps the question then is, does a game with the qualities I’ve mentioned before even exist? Namely, a game that fulfills the medium’s potentials, that has an adult and universal discourse, and is an authorial work? And if it does, how can we make that game a symbol? Is that even possible? How and where can we find our own Rosebud?

“Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.”

[More unanswered questions in the next article concerning our <<Citizen Kane>>.]

Batman Arkham Asylum – “Holy Similarities, Batman!”

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Franchise adaptations into videogame terrain are usually characterized by a meaningless boxing of the original work’s aesthetic universe into a stereotyped gameplay genre. Rocksteady Studios nails the aesthetic translation requirement, by creating “Arkham Asylum”, an environment which faithfully replicates the comics’ narrative and aesthetic space. You will still find burly character models and limited colour palettes; let’s be honest, this game isn’t exactly profound in its aesthetic and narrative portrayals, but then again, neither are most of “Batman’s” comics. In this regard, a special mention must be made to the exquisite voice-work delivered by Mark Hammill (remember Luke Skywalker?) who, cast in the role of Joker, manages the exceptional task of transforming a poor script (penned by Paul Dini, of the animated series) into a delicious succession of black humor gags. His voice is so hypnotic and enthralling, one can almost forget how poorly expressive Unreal Engine’s facial animations are.

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But the most surprising aspect of the new “Batman” game is precisely the renunciation of the typical logic behind franchise adaptations. “Arkham Asylum’s” game play mechanics are neither generic nor hollow, fitting perfectly with the dark knight: a mix of exploration, elegant and stylish brawler combat (somewhat evocative of “Assassin’s Creed” QTE style of battle) and stealth sequences. The game shows a meticulous characterization of Batman’s modus operandi, from the use of darkness, surprise and psychological mind games as weapons of choice for the caped crusader, to the employment of his iconic belt gadgets. Unfortunately, the different play styles are never blended organically, meaning that the experience tends to become a linear and predictable sequence of claustrophobic arenas, each enclosed by its own specific type of gameplay. Occasionally there are a few bosses, but not even these can serve as climax to a repetitive progression, which lacks crescendo and tension.

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However, the biggest fault I sense within this “Batman” lies not in its gameplay. It’s something far more encompassing and subjective, and in all honesty, something which I must admit is not even a fair critique. “Arkham Asylum’s” greatest sin lies in how well it reminds us of how close the video game medium is to comic books and juvenile animation series, and how distant it is from cinema. Whether it is the aesthetic, the tone or plot of the game, you can always feel the similarities it bears with both comic books and the animation series. The translation is effective precisely because of the spiritual and artistic resemblances between these mediums. But inevitably, the powerful cinematic rendition of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” will remain ever looming, reminding anyone of how much more immature and poor our own medium is when compared to its older sibling – film. And most likely, should anyone in the video game medium even attempt to move in closer to “The Dark Knight’s” ascetic, realistic style and morally ambiguous tale, they would surely be critically and commercially unsuccessful. Game designers who stick to comic book aesthetics however, fare well, let us not forget that it’s always easier to translate muscular men in tights kicking villain’s butts, than address issues of moral ethics, law and justice.

Nevertheless, despite level design flaws and these quibbles of mine, “Arkham Asylum” must be commended for being, surprisingly, one of those rare cases of a successful translation into the video game medium. It’s not a great adaptation… but it’s not that great a medium to begin with.

score: 2/5

[Part of this text was originally published in Portuguese, in Coimbra’s College Paper “ACabra”, dating 06/10/09]

Number 1 – Tetsuya Takahashi

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Ah, Tetsuya Takahashi, how I wish things would have turned out different to him. His story is so ill-fated and downright unlucky, it almost bears the same traces of tragedy which his games revolve around… It’s a long winding narrative that would transform one of the most visionary storytellers of a stale, immature genre into an almost unknown figure. To this day, he only lead two projects – “Xenogears” and “Xenosaga Episode I”, and much to my dismay, neither of his titles were ever released in the old continent. Both were received with relative disregard, only establishing themselves as cult classics in a very strict niche of J-RPG lovers.

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Takahashi’s career is small, but impressive. After several collaborations in art and graphics departments, of the best Square titles of the early nineties (“Final Fantasy IV”, “V”, “VI”, “Chrono Trigger”, etc.), Takahashi rose to the director’s chair in “Xenogears”. And it’s no accident that his first project is such a landmark in J-RPG history, so oft revered as one of the best games ever made in its genre. Comparisons with “Evangelion” abound, and with good reason, for besides featuring similar themes and aesthetic elements, they both represent strong signs of a mature intellectual discourse in what are otherwise immature means of expression. “Xenogears” clearly shows that for Takahashi, story is not a complement to game-design as much as it is the other way around. Which is not to say that his games’ RPG mechanics aren’t good, quite on the contrary, but the focus is ever the story. The infamous second CD of “Xenogears”, bearing almost no actual gameplay, is the ultimate proof of Takahashi’s commitment to telling stories. Though many attribute it’s existence to a lack of funds (a startling parallel to what happened to the ending episodes of “Evangelion”), I personally feel it  was the right call for the game, as the gameplay-thin second CD is actually one of the most memorable parts of “Xenogears”.

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The grand scale of  the plot-line is “Xenogears” most powerful aspect, with hundreds of different threads weaving together into a fabric that touches so many different areas of human knowledge – philosophy, religion, science -, while maintaining classical narrative structures and themes – love, betrayal, death. It’s a testament to both Takahashi and his wife (co-author of his games), that in the end, all of it makes sense, with every storyline fitting perfectly into a sprawling network of events covering thousands of years, deep in meaning and subtext. In their games, every dialogue counts, and there’s always a new revelation hiding beneath each word. Add a flavour for the erudite, with constant references to Nietzsche, Wagner, Jung, Kubrick’s “2001”, “Soylent Green”, amongst many others – and you have the sort of work that is especially rewarding for those who appreciate deep ramblings [i.e.: me]. Sure, there’s always an element of adolescent pretentiousness in such writing madness, but it beats teenager mediocrity everyday.

But it’s not just the script, as its conveying that makes Takahashi’s stories so powerful. His cutscene direction gave  a whole new meaning to the term operatic, with stylized framing of characters giving them a theatrical poise which transformed every line, movement and scene into a small piece of cinematic magic. And considering that in 1998 Takahashi already employed  in-game cutscenes with such finesse, gives him all the more value [see an example below, and notice how, with such meager means and technology, the cutscene still manages to retain such a dynamic flow]. Yasonuri Mitsuda was critical in this aspect, as his compositions always added a great deal of dramatic effect, manipulating  pathos through the delicious alternation between melancholic lullabies and heavy brass lines in pounding tempos, making you jump out of your seat in anticipation for the each upcoming twist.

Alas, a whim of lady luck would have Takahashi release his masterpiece less than a year in “Final Fantasy VII’s” wake, eventually casting his game in the shadow of the most beloved Japanese role playing game of all time. His game was never given a chance, despite being superior in many ways to Kitase’s own breakthrough. With a tighter budget, Takahashi not only delivered a far more profound narrative, but also a 3D world unlike anything at the time, much more lively and interactive than “VII’s” beautiful, yet static, pre-rendered backgrounds. But unlike “VII”, “Xenogears” lacked mind-blowing CGI, and wasn’t accessible to the younger audiences of Playstation, as its flair for the erudite, complex and operatic made it too obscure and obtuse for younger audiences.

Despite lacking George Lucas’ commercial success, Takahashi seemed to share similar delusions of grandeur – “Xenogears”, an epic game if I ever saw one, was actually the fifth tome of a grand saga of six episodes, a fact  revealed in the last of the credits screen, and further dissected in the “Perfect Works” art-book. But despite positive reviews and moderate commercial success on part of “Xenogears”, Square never supported Takahashi to pursue his original creation and design the remaining 5 episodes of his saga. Surely feeling betrayed by the fact, he left Square with other dissidents to found a new company, “Monolith Software”, lead by Hirohide Sugiura, and funded by Namco.

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Despite being unable to continue his saga directly, for Square remained adamant in upholding author rights over the original “Xenogears”, Takahashi was now granted the creative freedom to pursue his original work… or so he thought. He started working on “Xenosaga”, a six tome work very much like the one of which “Xenogears” was part of. It was a re-write of sorts, different enough only as to not be made the subject of a copyright’s quarrel between Monolith and Square. But once again, Takahashi suffered at the hands of fate, releasing “Episode I” a year after the big Square title of the time, Tsuchida and Toryama’s “Final Fantasy X”. Comparisons were drawn, and “Episode I” sit inevitably on the short end side of the stick: it lacked the mainstream appeal and, let’s be honest, the budget to be able to compete in the same league with “Final Fantasy”. Critics were dismissive, and it failed to sell. Personally, I find but one element that detracts from Takahashi’s work in “Xenosaga”, and that’s in the aesthetic department, with its super deformed anime aesthetic which made a serious work look seriously childish. As to the rest, I find it as clever and provocative as “Xenogears”, though few seem to agree with me.

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Namco was not pleased with the results and decided to take charge of the project. As a result, “Episode II” wouldn’t be handled by Takahashi or his wife, Soraya Saga, as both were removed from any involvement with the project. With them, also left Yasunori Mitsuda, series composer and long time friend of Takahashi, and Kunihiko Tanaka, character designer. In an attempt to make the game commercially viable, Namco changed character design and voice-overs to become more western-friendly, and ordered a complete re-write of the script penned by Saga. The result was a plot-thin, fast-paced, action-heavy sequel to “Episode I”. Irony of ironies, Namco’s aggressive posture would get them no credit. Takahashi’s fans felt betrayed and were disappointed with the end-result, and new-comers wouldn’t be drawn in to the series. Sales were poor, critics remained unmoved. Curiously, by some random act of production policy, the second episode was actually released in Europe, with a cutscene filled DVD to make up for “Episode I”. This was obviously a huge disservice to Takahashi’s vision, and a commercial failure nonetheless.

“Episode II’s” failure convinced Namco that “Xenosaga” was beyond commercial success – it was too niche, too outside the box, too uncommercial for its own sake – and so, the following episode would be the last, the remaining three canned. An attempt at compromise between the teams from previous episodes was made for the final whisper in Takahashi’s grand opus, and he was re-instated as creative consultant. As a positive outcome, he tried to recover Saga’s original scripts, and in what must have been a gargantuan task, attempted to wrap up the saga by fitting all remaining episode plot-lines into one neat finale. Despite being a convoluted mess, it almost felt like a Takahashi game. Once again, his six-episode saga remained untold, only this time, it will likely remain so forever.

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Eventually, Namco sold its share of Monolith to Nintendo, with whom the company had had good relationship regarding the “Baten Kaitos” series. It is doubtful that Nintendo, a very conservative company, will ever award a big enough budget and amount of creative freedom that would allow Takahashi to continue his works in the same line as before. From an economical perspective, his career is a total flop. And so, under Nintento, Takahashi limited himself at producing “Soma Bringer”, a DS RPG… only released in Japan. Meanwhile, the J-RPG  genre continues to decay: increasingly generic, unwilling to break from its tropes and juvenile tone, and lacking commercial appeal to westerners, it is a genre slowly waiting to die. Simultaneously, a visionary remains unheard, a man who I am sure could have taken the J-RPG genre to a new level, with his (and his wife’s) superb writing and storytelling capabilities. If he already delivered one of the most mature and thought-provoking games of its genre, more than a decade ago, who knows what he would be able to come up with today, with different (dare I say, more mature?) audiences and advanced technology and storytelling mechanisms? I’ll keep on hoping that history will  give him a chance, and prove me, and Takahashi, right. It is a vain hope, I’m afraid.