Archive for November, 2009

“Why we need a ‘Citizen Kane’… and why we may never get one.”

“Video games are art? Please, don’t insult yourself” – these are the thoughts that cross people’s minds. It’s true. Video games as a whole, have never held up to any form of mildly analytical, critical analysis from an art perspective.  That is why (almost) no one reviews games from a purely artistic perspective… hey, not even me, despite my somewhat pretentious goals. The truth is, if I were to do that, I would only employ half the compliments of my limited vocabulary, double the insults of my extensive verbiage,  and there would be no grade superior to a 3, except for maybe one or two games per year. And even if one admits that some video games are worthy of high brow status, that still leaves out 99.999999999% out in the woods to die, as mildly amusing entertaining products with zero cultural relevance. Why is it thus? Why is it, that when someone poses the Citizen Kane conundrum, the answers unequivocally end up being – “Metroid Prime”, “Ocarina of Time”, “Half Life 2”, “Super Mario World”, “Grand Theft Auto 3”, “Bioshock”… as if any of these games could really be seen as legitimizers of an art form. Don’t kid yourself, they aren’t art.

It’s been too long. We’ve spent 40 years of the medium’s lifetime sinking in its flaws and short-comings to the point we’ve grown to accept them. We love video games, do we not? And we love what they are, not what they can be! Forget what we think we believe in – that games could be more intelligent, provocative, emotional – we don’t want that. We want the saccharine aesthetics, the frantic rhythms, the noisy soundtracks, the childish narratives, the twitchy interfaces. And we are many. In the mid 90’s, Mac and PC CD-ROM grabbed part of the male adult demographics, and the Playstation grabbed the male young adult demographics. PS2 dug the casual audiences for the first time, and the Wii and Facebook took the vantage and grabbed the last bastion of hope – the girlfriends, moms, dads and gramps. No one is left to adhere. And all of them know what video games are good for – hedonistic entertainment, devoid of artistic expression, message, story and authorial verve. Hardcore or softcore, it’s all the same in the end: they’re merely different sides of the same expression, none of it high brow, none of it artistic. Admit it, there is nowhere left to run. We have told the world what to expect of video games. The world heard the call, came along for the ride, and the world doesn’t mind at all that games aren’t what we think we would like them to be. Heck, WE don’t mind. Video games are what they are, and everyone’s cool with that.

If a video game equivalent of “Citizen Kane” exists or comes to be in the future, it is hard to imagine anyone caring about it.  Really, think about the qualities I’ve pointed out in the previous article. Do you think that a truly thought-provoking work that’s interactive, deep, hard to really put your mind around it, that’s about real people’s lives, not some ridiculous fantasy, sci-fi or epic fiction, but a human drama about life, which has no genre or mediocre tropes about, and that didn’t care about entertainment value as much as it cared about its authors visions on life — do you really think gamers would buy it? It wouldn’t fit with our pre-conditioned notions of what games are, it wouldn’t be as ‘entertaining’ as we expect games to be and it wouldn’t give us what we’re accustomed to experience. It’d be dull, insipid and completely opaque to our soiled minds. Want proof? Just see the sales figures and reviews regarding a game that aspires to be art, and you’ll understand that we’re fighting a battle that cannot be won.

Meanwhile, the industry is giving us what we want. Shallow experiences. Game designers can’t risk one tick to make an interesting game, lest they not make enough money to maintain their jobs at multi-million dollar company number one thousand and thirty five. The scientists are investigating how to make the design process more efficient and lucrative for said companies, and also attempting to find out how to better light a pool of blood, texturize a gray rock and increase polygon count in a machine gun. The journalists are debating on how much “fun” the recently hyped triple AAA game really is, which game is actually game of the year, and when is too much violence just too much. Players are twitching like drug addicts for the next fix: hardcore’s eagerly expecting the new FPS, the new RPG, the new Action Adventure; the moms and dads all pins and needles to throw five bills at the new family entertainment set piece which will make them all grow thin and happy at the same time; and the wee-little girls are having a blast gossiping about the next big avalanche of casual, social games. Who exactly is expected to play the artistic game that will tell the world that video games can be art?

We can’t really afford to wait for a “Citizen Kane”. We need to mature as gamers first, because “Citizen Kane” is only a symbol for a collective change in perspective that has to start inside ourselves. If we change, we will find Kane, either in the present, past or future. If all else fails, we’ll create it ourselves. As long as we’re ready to understand it, to decode it, and to value it, someone will tell the world where it is. If we don’t, it’ll go by unnoticed. And right now, nobody is ready or paying attention. There aren’t enough gamers out there ready to embrace a new concept of ‘video game’. Of course, maybe there will come the time when some visionary geniuses pave way for an artistic model of what a video game can be. Or maybe the industry will crash so hard we’ll be obliged to look for interactive art, because there will be no entertainment left to experience. Perhaps capitalism will perish and games will be funded according to a grand communist committee that decides what is worthy and what isn’t, like cinema was in the Soviet Union. Perhaps we’ll magically realize that by not buying the latest FPS, in the long run, we’re telling the industry to change. Personally, I don’t buy it. We need to change first. Start now.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – “Can you spot the differences?”

Back when I did my “World at War” review I mentioned how the “Call of Duty” teams, despite taking small strides in terms of capturing the essence of a powerful, dramatic scenario like war, were still clinging to an essentially game-y experience, laden with obnoxious elements, the most displeasing of all being the HUD. Well, someone at funny or die must have read my mind, because they edited a video of what would it be like to “play” – “Call of Duty” style – the Normandy scene from Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. It’s not only a funny video clip, as it ends up posing the same questions I (and others) have been making. Think about it, sooner than you think, we’ll have quasi-realistic graphics in video games, and despite the emotional, aesthetic potential of these superbly rendered images, games remain ever focused on crude notions of “fun”, rather than tapping the possibilities that come with that potential expressiveness. The “Call of Duty” brand is an excellent example of this. Despite their huge success, their creators are still delivering, detailed graphics aside, the exact same game as they were back in “Allied Assault”. And whilst their games are increasingly visceral and continue to establish powerful ambiances with their over-glorified engines and whatnot, all those elements remain effectively meaningless in terms of the interactive experience. It’s still a game about shooting lifeless dummies as well as you can. It’s still the game about becoming a macho warrior. It’s still a game about feeling empowered and invincible. And it’s still a game about saving the world from the big bad men. Admit it, we’re still playing “Wolfenstein 3D”. There is still no point to it, no emotional sub-text or rhetoric involved in the games’ discourse.

Which is why all the controversy surrounding the “Modern Warfare 2’s” infamous “No Russian” level just seems absolutely ridiculous to me. It’s crude, silly and completely out of context in the game.  I guarantee you that any emotion you might feel during that sequence will vanish after five seconds of you understanding what’s going on. Under the guise of forcing you to face the horrors of terrorists, the game developers  simply deliver the exact same game-y experience, but for one difference, your opponents have no weapons, and bleed more than your typical grunt. They shout screams of horror, but we are talking of the same mass of generic, cardboard beings which you happily kill during normal levels.  When was the last time you felt disgusted from killing a cardboard image? Were those you kill real characters, with a story, a livelihood, an expressive behavior… creatures that had some sort of emotional involvement with us players, and maybe the scene would go beyond mere shock value. Video games have done it before, even in the first person shooter genre. To add to the detriment of the scene, those strange ethereal stars and cross-hairs are still flying above them, and it’s still a level in which you have to kill to “win”. The whole matter is as controversial as funny or die’s video. It doesn’t matter at all how realistic the characters look, because they’re still over-glorified targets in a shooting range, as Eurogamer so elegantly put. There can be no drama in killing virtual plastic dolls, let alone when you’re supposed to be some super warrior out to save the world, who just happens to have shot those same models thousands of times before, only with different clothing and less screaming. Killing them is as controversial as watching “Rambo” hack away the innards of some poor schmuck that just happens not to have an AK-47 lying around. It isn’t dramatic. The schmuck is just a schmuck – an impersonal abstraction without any lifelike character, just like any other of the thousands of terrorists in line for a bullet in the brain.

This isn’t the same as saying that “Modern Warfare 2” is just another piece of trash the industry spewed at us. Infinity Ward may take itself too seriously for their own good, they may not know how to write or tell a story that goes beyond the most naive patriotic bull or right-wing of conspiracies and they may not grasp the most basic aspects on how to create a character with some mildly nuanced form of emotion, but… but they do know how to make things blow up. Even Naughty Dog pales in comparison. Which is why “Modern Warfare 2”, aside from the lackluster initial levels, is a trip worth taking, if only for the pure excitement it can deliver. Its authors have gone to great lengths to replicate some of the most enjoyable experiences from many other pop references, from “Black Hawk Down” and “James Bond” to “Resident Evil 5” and “Metal Gear Solid“. Sure, it’s dumb, rude and stupid, but it’s also a superbly well paced, stylish and epic spectacle. Alas, when the game does end, nothing will remain except for the notion that you just experienced the most guilty of pleasures, the kind that leaves aught behind except for a kindling sparkle of warm adrenaline. We’ve seen this before, it was great then, it is great now, but honestly, this is not what we need right now. We need more, and this just ain’t it.

score: 2/5

均衡 – A first Attempt at Game (?) Design

Last year, for my Master’s Study and Development of Games discipline I developed, alongside with my dear friend Jorge Sousa, a little video game called 均衡 (yeah, it’s supposed to be in Japanese). For copyright reasons, I was obliged to gather enough money in order to pay for the licensed soundtrack, which is why I am only making the game public this week. Now, I would like to invite anyone who likes video games to play around with it and tell me what they think. Since this time I can’t review it, I would encourage anyone who feels like doing so to review the game on their own terms in the comment page. Time for payback, in other words 😉 Any insight you would like to give, or ask for, please do so as well. I will appreciate criticism as I always do, no matter how different your opinions may be of mine. Hopefully, you will afford me an interesting debate, as you always manage to.

So, to install the game, just download this package and use the “Install and Play Notes” file as guidance for any question you may have. The game runs in Windows, with near zero hardware requirements, so you only have to install some Microsoft stuff as described in the file, and then you’re ready to play.

I won’t explain anything about the game, though. It’s supposed to be experienced with a clean slate. That’s also why there are no tutorials, hints, text messages, objectives or score-cards in the game. Play it as you will, interpret it as you will – it’s your call. It’s a small, somewhat buggy game, that I admit, has some flaws and ingenuities that if I were to design the game today I would mend, but it still is something I am proud of. I really hope you enjoy it, and if you do… please spread the word.

[Also, from now on, I have an email for exclusive blog use. If you want to contact me, email me at “metavideogame@gmail.com”… And sorry for the shameless self-publicity.]

Uncharted 2 – “Hail the King of Thieves”

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“Uncharted 2’s” introductory moments are an absolute marvel. Most importantly, they represent a clear break from traditional game design logic, showing off exciting new possibilities in terms what a video game can (should?) be. Interested? Read on. The game starts, as you may already know, with Drake, half-bleeding to death inside a cliff-hanging train (the game opens with a cliff hanger, one can only enjoy the irony). Drake soon realizes, verbalizing it in his signature “oh God…”,  that the train isn’t about to hold on much longer, and will soon plunge deep into the gorge. Debris suddenly fall over, plummeting Drake nearer to the precipice, as he desperately clings to a rusty bent hand-rail that stands centimeters away from nothingness. Up to this point it’s cut-scene territory, extraordinarily directed as in the previous game, and perhaps even more so. That warm sense of witful charm is reprised, once again heralding back to the terrain of summer blockbuster movies, of Spielberg and Lucas fame. But what was missing in the first “Uncharted”, soon becomes reality in the second: the embodiment of that same spirit during actual game-play sequences.

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As Drake dwindles in the rail, the game kicks in, and you’re in charge. Climbing the train is simple and intuitive for anyone who has ever played a Tomb Raider-esque action-adventure game. But, despite it being absurdly simple to avoid Drake’s death while climbing, it retains a sense of tension and dramatic peril that video-games seldom impose without resorting to actual game-over screens. The trick Naughty Dog employed is devilishly clever: they enunciate danger through pre-scripted events but… it isn’t really there. For instance, the moment Drake nears the end of the hand-rail he’s clinging to, it bends unexpectedly. As you climb, objects keep falling down… a bit too near Drake for his own sake. Later, the second Drake jumps away from another rail, it suddenly breaks and falls. This sequence is simply riddled with these small nerve-cringing incidents that give you the illusion of danger [as you can see for yourself here], without it ever truly existing, as you can’t really die because of them. The whole level, in fact, is nearly impossible to fail, shifting “Uncharted 2” away from a pure game, and into somewhat of an interactive, yet highly cinematic experience. The game becomes much more tense because of this, as you never have to repeat the sequence, thus maintaining its initial emotional impact intact. It represents as pure a translation as there has been of the concept of a film-like experience into video game terms; it’s all a matter of deception and misguidance, and the powerless witnessing of danger, as opposed to its confrontation, as is common for games. Something tells me that Spielberg would approve.

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From then on, the game continues this strategy to impose tension, throwing unexpected events at the player in any given situation. Trains explode, buildings crumble, bridges fall – the sense of playing a roller-coaster film is pervasive. This engagement improves significantly because of all the work and thought that was noticeably invested in understanding and replicating the cinematic language – from the outstanding set design of each exotic location, to the delicious voice and facial animation, notwithstanding the superlative use of camera directing (especially in-game). Cut-scene and game mesh in such natural and emotional ways, it almost begs the question of why didn’t anyone do this before. Nevertheless, not all is rendered with the manipulating edge of the first few moments of the game. As “Uncharted 2” moves on, it becomes an actual game, with the expected challenges and trial and error sequences. For the most part, it remains an expertly crafted work, exhilarating as few can be, despite the continuous interruption of death scenarios. There’s also the overuse of the by now blasé “Gears of War” combat, that insists on outstaying its presence, but no amount of slow crawling, tedious and repetitive cover combat can impair “Uncharted’s” sense of style and amusement, let alone its humor, both in and outside cut-scenes. It’s just a shame that such “military” influences are not toned down, as the action in “Tomb Raider”, as a way to punctuate the scale, instead of dominating every beat.

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“Uncharted 2” could have easily been one of the most important mainstream games in recent history, had Amy Hennig and the team at Naughty Dog had the courage to forfeit genre conventions and the ridiculous tick boxes which modern action games are governed and reviewed by, like multiplayer and co-op modes. Had that wasted energy been invested in further exploration of the subtle new grounds of action adventure experience which “Uncharted 2” skims by, and it might have been a shining new example of a new genre. As is, it’s still the best of its kind – as unoriginal in its game-play as others before it, though designed with a finesse, care to detail and artistry that its competitors are sorely lacking.

score: 4/5