Archive for January, 2011

2010 – “A Year in Review” pt. 2

In March, there was “Yakuza 3“, and if the year had ended thus, all would be well. Being the only direct sequel in this list, it is tempting to simply dismiss “Yakuza” as another structurally formulaic piece; truth be told, it is a J-RPG at heart and it is indeed the third title in a series that has advanced practically nil since its inception. But to reduce it to its archetypal game design is a huge misconception of its nature, overlooking the nuances that drive its riveting character. For behind its brawler combat and roleplay mechanics, lies a stunning cultural representation of Japanese society. Toshihiro Nagoshi learned invaluable lessons with his contribution to Suzuki’s “Shenmue” and applied them by crafting a vivid spatial rendering of real-life Japanese streets, one which takes full advantage of PS3’s graphical prowess. Every detail and minutiae is treated with artful respect, from the glorious neon landscapes to the seedy underbelly of the urban sprawl, building a rich virtual landscape that is a wonder to simply behold, but also to explore and play with. To those who minimize the aesthetic power of videogames and insist on refusing three-dimensional spaces as art in of themselves, “Yakuza” will definitely force you to question those assumptions. Not that it does not fully use the procedural power of videogames, quite on the contrary, it employs it accurately but with naturalist poise, subjugating everything from game rules to mini-games and NPC behavior to a specific perspective on how Japanese society should be decoded. Last but not least, it cares for its characters almost as much as “Heavy Rain“, for despite its anachronistic narrative structure and interfaces (deeply rooted in J-RPG precepts), it focuses most of its story on Kazuma’s relationships with orphanage children and local townspeople, while still managing to tackle crucial themes like political corruption. And it does it masterfully one might add, with this year’s greatest technical achievement in animation, characterization and voice acting… by far. Masterpiece? Yes, that title will just about do.

The heat of June graced us with the obligatory reference of “Demon’s Souls” (in Europe at least). The reason Hidetaka Miyazaki’s spiritual follower to “King’s Field” should be remembered in days to come is that it is one of the few videogames of the past year that was created as if outside our time. While sprouting some impressive technology (beautifully harnessed by its gothic atmosphere), it refuses modern game design dogmas and upholds some of the finer lessons from classic game design that, unfortunately, now lie forgotten. Its roleplaying roots hark back to early dungeon crawlers such as “Rogue” or “Wizardry”, but what truly makes the experience click is the total absence of intrusive, non-diegetic, text-heavy narrative and gameplay devices. Its mostly minimalist interface and free-exploration actually evoke some of the finest ideals from classic titles like the original “Legend of Zelda” and “Metroid”. As in those, players are free to roam the landscape, with very little guidance on how to play or interpret the game world, its denizens and locations speaking for themselves as if digital artifacts in an archeological site. Players thus become engrossed in the fantasy, as each part of the conceptual framework that supports it has to be filled by their imagination, gaining the power to enchant them with its eerie qualities. The extreme difficulty and lack of hand-holding further potentiate this involvement, letting the player suffer for himself all the hardships of becoming a true hero – the frustration and failure that come with each death – so as to only reap rewards when merit is due, resulting in a climatic release of true ‘fiero’. The cycle of tension and release drives the experience with glorious emotional payback, in a game that never forgets it is a game, never aspiring to be anything but a game, and because of it, is one of the finest videogames proper in this generation.

[To be concluded in part 3…]

2010 – “A Year in Review” pt. 1

A year of videogames has gone by. A wasted year in many a way. Not that there weren’t enough groundbreaking videogames released for the past 12 months, no, there surely were. But, following old habits, the problem with this year lies in the narrative that has been shaped by media, the semantic skeleton that has become inexorably imprinted in people’s minds. Most will look back at 2010 as the year of “Mass Effect 2” and “Red Dead Redemption” (review forthcoming) and “Super Mario Galaxy 2” and “God of War III” – the triumphant year of this brave new age of videogames, so perfectly produced, so unanimously revered… so much so that they could only be as elegant as their harmlessness and voidness of purpose and content. The reason there is so little debate when choosing the very best of this year is remarkably simple – the criteria for the valorization of these pieces have become unanimous and ubiquitous, embodied in a cold, vapid rhetoric ellaborated by the very industry that invests millions in these productions. To talk of interactive arts and even entertainment in these consensualist terms is not only degrading, as downright absurd. Whilst the games that dominate the airwaves (and which we have been occasionally guilty of giving more attention than they probably deserve) are worthy of merit in their own way – as heralds of an increasingly stable and effective industry, capable of alluring millions and delighting them in ways unimaginable outside videogames – they are also symptomatic of the lack of creativity, craftmanship and sheer artistry that should govern an expressive medium such as this. They don’t touch people as much as arouse them. They don’t convey a message. They don’t address any facet of human life. As such, these will not be the games we’ve chosen to give merit to in regards to the past year.  As we will try to show, the following titles are the very few we believe propelled the medium further, deepening its expressive pendant and actually communicate with those who were lucky enough to experience them. Most of them do not fit the art bill, by any means, showing only small symbolic strides in the great journey that lies ahead of our potentially powerful medium, but since they are the sole worthy of merit, they must be mentioned. So here go, the best games of 2010, in chronological order, according to yours truly.

Bayonetta” inaugurated the year with a full-frontal blast of unfettered aesthetic virtuosity, driven by the videogame-loving insanity of Hideki Kamiya. Considering the small scale of his entrepreneurship side by side with the giants of Santa Monica, the end-result is astoundingly high profile: the graphical prowess, the refined elegance and complete maximalist outstretch of the combat system, not forgetting the various gameplay schemas which so devilishly evoked classic gaming memories. And, unlike its peers, it actually has the clinical and cynical distance to both elevate and parody this flawed medium, adding subtlety and depth of discourse to an otherwise apparently hollow artifact. Not to mention its historical deconstruction (debauchery?) of christian culture and history, in one of the most venomous and insidious discourses videogames have seen in the past decade. “Bayonetta” deserves to be remembered for its wit and craftmanship, for its seductiveness and charm, for its hidden sub-texts and dashingly sexy body.

February saw two seemingly distant artifacts released: “Vanitas” and “Heavy Rain“. The first represents one of the few art ventures to receive the attention it deserves. A “Tale of Tales” piece created with the iPhone in mind, it underpins the vain egotistical logic that governs consumerist society, one which finds its greatest of symbols in the very platform Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn chose to express themselves. With the beauty and aesthetic care that they have been known for, they present a calm, introspective experience, which entices players not only to deconstruct the artifact, but their very psyche and behavior. The metaphysical ponderings that must emerge from its interactions – on the elusiveness of beauty and the unstoppable decay of life – have been the most meaningful and delightful this year. Seldom have we smiled with such pleasure and irony at an interactive artifact.

“Heavy Rain“, of course, is an altogether different beast, a mammoth interactive neo-noir narrative about a man’s quest to save his son. Too much has been said of its plot-holes and inconsistencies (as if other games fared any better on that end, alas!), and too little has been mentioned of its emotional core, its vanguardist, perhaps even somewhat foolish attempt to connect with digital characters, through actual human feelings and veritable ‘pathos’. We admit it, we loved its cast of archetypal characters, we felt empathy, sadness, despair, anger, fear and moral doubt alongside them. For when questioning “Heavy Rain“, we must also question which mainstream game has done more to address the human condition! Which other title touched on such issues as the real-life considerations of a father, from his love for his children, to his parenting and morals when faced with a tragedy? Which game invested so much in creating interactive templates for all the little actions in life, like taking a shower, inhaling asthma medicine or taking care of a wound? This, as opposed to shooting guns and waging war with swords and chains! Which game tried so hard to deliver convincing character modelling and animation? To design such intricate virtual sets and props that made you feel as if inside a real-life set? No, it wasn’t the supposedly deep narrative of “Mass Effect 2” with its cartoonish, overly brawnish and sexualized characters, nor the brutish ugly renders of the supposedly tragic epic of “Red Dead Redemption”, so daft and unemotional on account of its creators not even being able to capture a man’s sternness without making him look like an ape or a women’s beauty and delicateness without making her look like a monster. Yes, yes, David Cage might be guilty of the sin of extremely poor references, of generic Hollywood class writing, and might even be so utterly daft not to understand he is fighting an unwinnable battle in a dead genre, but unlike everyone else he is going in the right direction with the right tools. Towards human drama, through emotion. And no matter what everyone keeps saying, he is alone.

[To be continued…]

Deadly Premonition – “SWERY Profile”

There’s a cruel absence of authors proper in videogames. In this colossal studio system driven by numbers, individuals are crushed by collective needs of success, creators’ personalities ultimately shaped according to corporate mission statements, creative juices sugar-coated for added punch and then gently filtered to appeal to carefully designed target audiences. It’s a dismal system, with only the tiniest of cracks left open for authors to slide through and show their true aspirations. Which is exactly where “Deadly Premonition” (also known for the more accurate and appropriate Japanese title, “Red Seeds Profile”) comes in. Much has already been said about it, its cult status rocketing sky-high throughout the dark meanders of the internet, achieving virulent success thanks to heated debate, devote worship and venomous criticism. The constant, whether one hates or loves the game, is its creator, SWERY (aka Hidetaka Suehiro). You will find no article around that does not mention this name, and the reason for that fact makes itself pretty clear when you get to play the game – it brims personality… his personality. And he’s got tons of it, for a fact.

SWERY’s eccentricity found its natural habitat in Lynch’s surreal exposé on the mystic backwaters of the American landscape. In “Twin Peaks”, the mysterious veil surrounding these rural settings provided a fertile ground for a nightmarish deconstruction of society; in “Deadly Premonition” it serves as an escapist backdrop to SWERY’s personal reveries – his movie tastes, hobbies and teenager crushes, his typically Japanese perversions, even going as far as his childhood traumas (whether real or imagined, one can only guess). He divulges these with a smile, so as long as he can confess another of his idiosyncrasies in this delightful pop-artifact. The result is, more often than not, extremely funny. How often can one drive through the countryside, admiring the soothing northwestern scenery… while listening to mad, Tarantinoesque cinephile ramblings on everything from “Jaws” to “Body Snatchers”, enunciated by a certified crazy FBI agent, half Mulder, half Cooper, blabbering away as he talks to an unbodied alter-ego named Zach? Well, such a scene is indeed evocative of Kojima’s best work, though the difference here is that SWERY is completely free to pursue every insane, wacky line of thought, far from being chained to a never winding military saga about genes and memes and old guys who like to smoke.

The game itself paves homage, in SWERY’s own perverse logic, to videogames. The town of Greenvale, for example, is conjured as a middle-ground between “Shenmue’s” intimate characterization of space and character with “Grand Theft Auto’s” sense of open scale. Much of the game’s appeal comes precisely from the ability to explore the scenario, indulging in its unique sense of place and weird details; more often than not, there is vicious satire hiding beneath these. Take the overarching score system, which awards money for practically every in-game action – a noisy HUD meta-score dominates the screen with large numbers, and an iconic ‘ca-ching’ sound punctuates the added fun! – it’s interactive humor at its best, downright non-sensical, as well as a dead-on criticism to the vapid logic of contemporary ‘gamification’. There’s also the simulationist absurdity of having your facial hair grow if left unchecked or the voyeuristic possibility of spying on villager’s lives with a peeping tom ability. Wonderful. And it all comes together, thanks to an enticing and dramatic (if completely screwball) storyline with bizarre characters and a creepy Lynchian atmosphere, given body by unsettling visual and aural compositions (Hitoshi Okamoto and Riyou Kinugasa et al, respectively).

It’s a labour of love if we ever saw one, and one which a small budget couldn’t stop from being an aesthetic treat. That it managed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies whilst maintaining much of its author’s whims intact is a blessing. Compromises were definitely made, most notorious of which the absurd “Resident Evil 4” combat system dominating the gameplay landscape, in a clear nod of submission to the western-minded. However, such caveats have become the bread and butter of the videogame enthusiast, and one must necessarily downplay their nefarious effect and be thankful of the good that comes with each title. If there is a truly relevant flaw worth mentioning, is that though SWERY is a lovable weirdo we would like to hear more from, he is far from being an artistic genius with something truly relevant to say. Nonetheless, “Deadly Premonition” is one of the most original, strange, and surprising experiences to be had in many a year, and to anyone who ever doubted, startling proof that auteur theory can also apply to videogames.

score: 4/5

God of War III – “Grieve the Fallen God”

Three titles in, half a decade later, you can’t help but feel tired of the design schema behind “God of War”. Yes, few have treaded the same path with the perfectionism and production values that characterize the series, but the fact remains that there is really nothing else to explore here that wasn’t present in the very first title. Kratos’ brutally killing enemies with his swinging chains has become a cliché, one that each passing day sees repeated once again. Which is why it’s a surprise how good the third iteration starts out – after a lavish, artful intro (courtesy of Imaginary Forces), you’re quickly thrust into the back of a Titan to wage war with the Gods, in a memorable scene that gives a whole new dimension of scale to the now banal word ‘epic’. The score pumps hard and mighty, the enemies loom the size of tall skyscrapers, and Kratos, the ant, fights with all his might and fury, flying through the skies, raining death upon the Olympians – it’s a glorious piece of entertainment which takes Ueda’s colossi battles and skillfully amps the sheer intensity of the confrontation.

But, as is popularly said, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The initial orgasmic climax of unfettered proportions soon dims itself to the menial repetition of the “God of War” template, slogging slowly along a wide diminuendo. By the time you finish the game, its flame has but withered to a small sparkle. In between, Stig Asmussen seems to have tried everything to keep the experience fresh, endlessly quoting other titles (from “echochrome” to “ICO” and even “Guitar Hero”) in a desperate attempt to grasp new ludic vocabulary. Even mixing representation perspectives was attempted in the hopes of adding variability to the repetitive action, with whole sequences hanging on the tip of a new, extremely visceral camera angle. Futile as these are in reformulating the tiresome core gameplay, they are so compellingly interwoven into the flow, that they end up keeping it afloat – at least entertaining enough so one does not shut down the console.

But let us not elude matter of fact, “God of War” isn’t just entertainment, it’s the finer crop of spectacle, even when it hits its most uninspired of low keys. The care in aesthetic polish is here taken to whole new heights, far beyond the expectable needs for a mainstream project; it’s the SONY brand at its best, investing heavily in symphonic compositions (by Gerard Marino et al) and art direction (Ken Feldman). Thus, “God of War III” ends up being a prime example of everything that is right with existing production philosophies… but also of everything that is absolutely wrong. Its stunning exterior architecture is but a decrepit hall for the hollow systems and semantics that lie underneath, purposefully directed at mass audiences dominated by the ubiquitous young male demographics. The excessive testosterone bravado, gruesome violence and escapist peplum go way beyond acceptable taste levels, undermining any possibilities of Kratos’ tragedy being taken seriously. Any literary density that would be desirable given its classical background is absent from the game’s narrative context, with the lack of care in voice acting and facial characterization (both on the cartoonish side of the scale) further evicting the experience to pulp terrain. This is what always impeded “God of War” from becoming a true classic – its designers never really aspired at greatness, always content with their cool, savage little comic-book fantasy. The crux here, as in all the medium, is how evocative the craftmanship is, and how easy it is to perceive all the possibilities for mature discourse and aesthetically provocative experiences, inside the confines of the game’s major coordinates. The actual artifact just ends up shamelessly stripped and devoid of any authorship or true aesthetic consideration, its creators delightfully shaping yet another pompous combat experience to be sold to countless mindless teenagers and youngsters. So let them rejoice, for they achieved meritorious success in their ventures, but let us mourn at the unfulfilled potential of this epic journey that now ends in shame.

score: 3/5