Archive for March, 2010

Echo Night Beyond – “Space Exploration”

For quite some time now, video games have become a thrilling new means of conveying the aesthetics of subjective experiences. Nevermind video games as narrative, video games as games or video games as rules – video games adept at simulating presence in three-dimensional worlds. These dream-machines are capable of eluding senses into immersion by representation of sight and sound and interaction, conjuring the fantastical and the mundane alike. That such reality is so often forgot is the only explanation why such a long-time primordial dream of mankind and the human ego has been so mistreated in the medium. Amidst rows and rows of shooters and strategy games set in space, one would find a great deal of difficulty in chosing a game that could accurately represent the sense of being a space astronaut. Powerful and inspirational memories of the past, such as Kennedy’s famous speech or the iconic 1969 broadcast of Apollo 11 seem to have been utterly forgotten due to game designers’ strangling myopia. Herein lies “Echo Night Beyond’s” accomplishment, as more than serving as decent sequel to the horror-themed first person adventure “Echo Night”, it establishes a faint, yet palpable realization of what it would feel like to be in outer space.

Sadly, its legacy does come into place. As background scenario there’s an occult ghost-story set in space, which serves as narrative bridge to previous iterations, not to mention that the structural design follows closely on its predecessors, with exploration guided with means of quests attributed by wandering ghosts. Eventually, these awkward trappings become fully digestible because “Beyond” follows that golden rule of Japanese design which places all elements as functional complements to the establishment of an aesthetic experience. Indeed, the clichéd esoteric storyline and adventure template prove mere video game macguffins that justify players’ need to embark on a journey through an abandoned space station. The alpha and omega of the game is the voyage itself, as you wander through the cold metallic halls of an eerie, ghost-infected mining facility, encrusted somewhere on the face of the moon. And it is, as all survival horror games should aspire to be, a distressful, profoundly unsettling psychological journey.

You explore the game in first person view, with a claustrophobic helmet crushing your sight’s field of view, and a bulky space suit slowing your every move. The silence, in almost as dreadful manner as in Kubrick’s masterpiece, is ever present, with the howling trot of the space suit being your ears’ only companion for the majority of the time. Sluggishly plodding about the atmospheric surroundings, a small torch tenuously lighting the way through the darkness, you’ll feel just like a space explorer should feel: alone. The occasional metallic ringing of shutting doors and industrial machines will be the only presence you will encounter apart from the sinister (albeit somewhat lost in translation) encounters with ghosts. As they guide you through the adventure, you’ll even explore the exterior of the space station, thrust into the moon’s harsh surface, beneath the menacing black void of outer space, crawling ever so slowly, nigh standing still, or simply jumping as Neil Armstrong did, in a lethargic space twirl, flying across wide areas of white dusty terrain, only to find oneself perpetually trapped in the most desolate of landscapes.

Like its “King’s Field” brethren, “Echo Night Beyond” reminds us of how simplicity in the game design meanders and scarcity of resources are no barriers for devising superlative forms of player experience. Its technical excellence in audio-visual design make it an extremely immersive and moody game, and allow it to be a pioneer in capturing the imagination of all those who’ve always wanted to be a little bit closer to that vast dark mantle of unknown that covers the sky.

score: 4/5

State of the Art – “Canabalt”, or everything that’s wrong with video games

[If you haven’t played “Canabalt” yet, do yourself a favor and play it: it’ll only take a few minutes to understand what I’m writing about.]

There’s a reason why I normally don’t write about indie games such as “Canabalt”. In fact, “Canabalt” may the best example of why I don’t ever do so. If you haven’t noticed, “Canabalt” has become a sort of poster-child for indie development. It was mentioned in both Destructoid and Eurogamer on game of the year lists, and attracted considerable attention from nearly all media outlets, even going as far as getting a review from über-mainstream IGN. Let’s discuss its merits. First, it is obviously an exercise of extremely elegant game-design – the only interaction with the game is through the one button that makes you jump. Like Ulrich’s character in Metallica’s cinephile music-video “I Disappear“, your character is trapped in some random metropolis skyscraper, trying to escape the impeding doom of collapsing buildings. So, he’s continuously on the move, running game style, forcing you to time your jumps in order to go from rooftop to rooftop, while avoiding incoming obstacles and pitfalls. The desolate world that surrounds you, painted in a mono-chromatic palette, is always crumbling, victim to some unknown Wellsian menace, as ships and tripod-like machines pass by in the game’s backgrounds. And so, your character is always running and running and running, as the soundtrack’s electronic beats keep pushing the tempo higher and higher, running and running and running for his life, ever faster, ever quicker, and ever more dangerously, as obstacles keep hurling through the air just to bar your path. Once you die, you just start again, playing the pattern memorization game to push further in your harrowing escape, and then die again, repeating this cycle for all eternity: there’s no end to the game, you just receive a better score for staying alive for more time.  “Canabalt’s” simplicity is its stroke of genius: an accessible game, with minimalist interaction and aesthetic – one button,  one objective, one color, one music – all playing in unison to make for a superlative entertaining, addicting experience. Its authors deserve all the credit they can get, for doing so much with so little.

OK, by now I have surely got you wondering, if “Canabalt” is that good, what’s with the article’s title? Why would anyone deem “Canabalt” a symbol for  everything that’s wrong with video games?  The reason is simple, “Canabalt”  is incredibly fun, but… that’s it. There’s no point to it, no message, no aesthetic experience, no nothing. It’s as innocuous as most video games. This isn’t bad per se, it’s a wonderful game in its almost offensive superficiality, but that’s precisely because we’ve become acquainted and appeased by video games’ lack of anything beyond their pleasurable, shallow exteriors. It’s remarkable, and I’d think almost insulting to creators, that big company design logos can be so easily replicated with such simplicity and scarcity of means. You see, “Canabalt” isn’t really indie. As much as it is designed by independent developers, its game design philosophy is nothing but a thin, slimmed down version of mainstream video games’. This is why it so easily resonated with the mainstream – it’s language was immediately understood by both journalists and players, and its elegance garnered it praise for still being able to achieve that which all games are measured by: fun. This should get people who love video games thinking… and thinking really hard, for if something as naked as “Canabalt” can relate to people in as a powerful way as big budget titles… then what are big publishers spending their millions on? What is the point of throwing all those dollars into creating complex three-dimensional engines in service of bland aesthetics, over-long scenarios for botched narratives and super complicated game designs… if it can all be reduced to such an elegant little video game?

Wave Foam – “Art vs Games…????”

Last month, there was this heavy clash of discord on the internet surrounding Jim Sterling’s truculent hubris on artsy indepent games [GameSetWatch has a nice overview/defense column on the matter, thanks Pedro!]. As someone who appreciates indie ventures such as “The Path”, my immediate reaction was as brash as Jim’s. But at the end of the day it got me thinking: why this binary, fundamentalist, with or against us logic behind all these columns and reactions? Has game logic – win or lose, true or false, 1 or 0 – reached game studies, journalism and criticism? Look at the big picture: is it not possible, considering that one single truth which we can all agree with – that video games are a rich new form of media – that we can have different conceptions of what a creative, captivating and entertaining video game is? Is it that hard for everyone to accept that we can love or hate both “The Path” and “Half Life 2”, and all those little things that go in the middle, all for very different reasons? Gosh, have we really entered a battlefield of uncompromising faiths, where no one accepts different views, and everyone dismisses what the other side is saying? Think about it, it would be like watching movie critics debating on whether true film expression is limited to Stanley Kubrick or George Lucas. Either one or the other. No compromise: only one of them can be deemed film, only one is worth of merit, whoever says otherwise is a biggot. Come on, aren’t they both compatible, interesting, and their merits subjective and debatable? Why shun a whole different outlet for expression, on the basis of one’s own personal taste? Why confine ourselves to claustrophobic definitions of what is a good video game? Why is fun everything, or nothing, for these two conflicting sides? Why are pure games the only accepted expression for some, and pure artistic ventures for the others?

I want a medium where “The Void” gets as much praise as “Bioshock”, where I can play “God of War” followed by “ICO” and love both experiences, where Jim Sterling and Jaffe can understand that fun might be enough for them, but isn’t for others, and where we can all debate these issues in a rational, non-confrontational, calm debate. Is that too much to ask?

Wave Foam – “Endless Cycle”

Sad weeks for video games. I keep realizing nothing ever changes for the better in this land. When “Heavy Rain” hit, and I  started to see its value, I foolishly considered it would be a great banner for a different sort of ‘video game’. But whilst there seems to be a general adherence to the game, critics have been reluctant to give merit to Cage. I mean, “Heavy Rain” commits many sins, sure – interactive narrative, less-than-perfect voice-acting, over indulgence in Q.T.E.’s and cutscenes -, but it strives at something more, something else, and does that while remaining immensely accessible and fun for everyone, including these pseudo critics who live out of praising games that sell well no matter what. Some love for a game that is different, would be reassuring that there was  still some hope. But no, no luck there. “Heavy Rain’s” average meta-critic is decent, though on par with that of “Bioshock 2” (go figure), and all the columns I’ve read are flaring out against the game [see this and this]. “Deadly Premonition”, an off-beat “Twin Peaks” inspired, crazy japanese horror game, also got the heat from western press, (here and here) and if that wasn’t enough, today, the company behind “Hotel Dusk” is filling for bankrupcy, and you confirm the notion that even those simple, conventional, but still interesting games don’t have much space to live in this industry. Ah well, I’ve heard it was Oscar season, so maybe I should go catch up on film, see how they’re doin over there.

P.S. I forgot to mention, but the new “Tomb Raider” is a downloadable, co-op, isometric action adventure game… God, I love video games!

Heavy Rain – “Brooding Emotions”

Tempestuous weather, “Heavy Rain’s” leitmotif, serves not only as the perfect mood setter for the crime novel Cage is telling, but also as a fitting metaphor for how his game was envisioned and created: a whirling storm of conflicts and clashing ambitions. Remember “Fahrenheit“? Well, “Heavy Rain” is not all that different from its messy predecessor: they share similar narrative themes, plot scenes and even structural skeleton. The only new element lies in the contextual button presses, which metaphorically relate player’s input with character’s on-screen actions, in essence making your physical and psychological interactions with the game as similar as possible with character’s own experiences. David Cage intended to suck players in as far as possible into the diegetic realm of his story, and this clever (if somewhat limited) device, fulfills its function beautifully, going well beyond the gimmicky nature it could acquire in the hands of a less devoted auteur.

However, one must question what is this that Cage is trying us to relate to? A gamey blockbuster-like sci-fi epic, as “Fahrenheit”? The answer is, rather surprisingly, no. Somehow he actually learned his lesson and understood that the fabric of good narratives does not lie in fantastical plots or teenager power fantasies or heart-pumping action chases, but in the subtle characterizations of human beings: their feelings and livelihoods and emotions and thoughts and, well, in one word, life. This is “Heavy Rain’s” finest, this simple realization, so absent in the video game medium, that all media is about people, just… people. The initial scenes are perfect in this sense, presenting some of the finest non-ludic segments in the history of video games, as you play out the simple joys of life: watching the subtle facial expressions of your face in the mirror while you shave, noticing your body relaxing as you take a hot shower, gently sipping the morning coffee as you see your neighbors passing through the window, or simply standing in your backyard, beneath a tree’s shade, on a bright sunny morning, doing nothing as you wait for your dear family to return home.  These are subjects which so many games avoid like the plague – because they are not action-packed or ‘fun’ or cool – and  yet “Heavy Rain” addresses them whole heartedly, with a naive ingenuity that reminds us of silent film.

This is not to say that “Heavy Rain” is the perfect accomplishment of a dramatic video game. As the story develops, with the stormy weather ever-looming and you enter the dark, brooding, decrepit halls of the neo-noir, all the fissures that interactive narratives live by crack open. Sadly, even the emotional bonding scenes eventually pave way for the menial tasks of unfolding conflict according to game design cannon, with an over-indulgence in Q.T.E.-ladden action sequences, even in cases where there are known game-play templates that would fit these better. And Cage’s ever-recurring lack of aesthetic sensibility occasionally shows its true face, as he blindly cites the oddest things – C.S.I., Johnny Mnemonic, Minority Report, etc. – and in doing so severely breaks the game’s moody Fincher-esque atmosphere… Yet somehow, none of this really matters, for these are mere trifles which in other cases we wouldn’t even notice, but in a work so ambitious and bold and provoking we can’t help but lament, such is its ideal. But what you will fondly remember is that rare genuine character expression you’d never seen in a video-game, your own real smile as you joyfully play with children, the panic you’ll feel when you play the father who loses his own son, or the empathy towards the sad lives of some of the more miserable characters. Genuine glimpses of emotion: what game does that to you?

Cage is aware of why video games are bad and emotionally shallow and redundant. He knows film is not. And so, he tries to use cinema as inspiration… we would argue it is not the best of ways to get there, but Cage doesn’t seem to mind that at all. Let’s be frontal, he’s the only mainstream designer that is, at least, trying to go in the right direction, perhaps for all the wrong reasons and in all the wrong ways, but he’s trying. And though he pushes and pushes,  absurdly, with such folly and impetuousness, you can’t help but sympathize and even admire his foolishness.  So the origami killer asks: “How far would you go to save someone you love?”. Well, one thing is for sure, Cage is willing to sacrifice everything to save video games as a form of mature media, so maybe we should lend him an ear and listen to what he’s trying to say.

score: 5/5

[Much is left to say about “Heavy Rain” that this already excessively large review could never cover. I may return to this subject in the near future. Cheers!]