NieR – “Pygmalion”

Surprises are increasingly rare. The medium’s vocabulary has become crystallized to such a degree that even the most virtuous of videogame examples seems incapable of presenting us with unexpected forms; a quick glance seems today more than enough to characterize works to their most intimate detail. “NieR”, though far from being a stalwart of the medium, deceives the uncouth look and carries the full weight of these times by presenting derogative superficial qualities which hide its inner beauty. It is surely a pastiche at heart, which is also probably why so few in the specialized press gave it second thought (it was shunned upon release, later leading to the disbanding of the studio).

If it were a painting, it would have in its center a scene straight from Kamiya’s brawlers (“Devil May Cry”, “Bayonetta”), even if deprived of their genial transgressive character; framing the action would be the structural architecture of an orthodox “Legend of Zelda”, only absent of Miyamoto’s elegant Nintendo-brand game design; the theme would be an outright theft of Fumito Ueda, both in its dramaturgy and dream-like aesthetic (misty landscapes, unsaturated color palette, massive ruins and bridges), and it would be elaborated through a J-RPG narrative, for this is Square Enix we’re talking about. Were our analysis to finish at such a point, we would discard “Nier” as an inferior product, undeserving of posterior reflection.

But the game proves beyond such reproval, for Yoko Taro (“Drakengard”) is knowledgeable of each and every one of his appropriations, knowing far too well how to use them to elevate both gameplay and fiction. Not only that, he revels in his capacity to evoke and parody the memory of classic videogame history. As an example, one quest sees you enter a small town amidst a misty forest; there, characters can delve inside villagers’ dreams, finding a realm where only words exist, every thought and action and dialogue now turned into white roman characters on a utterly black screen, heralding classic interactive fictions such as “Colossal Cave Adventure”. You’ll find a plethora of such far-fetched references wrapped in a subtle (for videogame standards) play of meta-humor – “Resident Evil”, “Diablo” and even bullet-hell “Ikaruga” make an appearance – and these will surely indulge the historically minded player looking for a test of knowledge, playing the “I know you know where I got this from”. Part of “NieR’s” appeal comes precisely from its uncompromising post-modern take on its references, as it builds a patchwork world wrought of unexpected aesthetic and mechanic convulsions which induce a sense of awe and bizarre that is exquisitely uncanny. Perhaps the most sui generis of these convulsions lies in the soundtrack (by Keiichi Okabe, Kakeru Ishihama, Keigo Hoashi and Takafumi Nishimura): a melancholic ensemble of choral and guitar-stringed Celtic refrains which reflect the bitter and mournful spirit of the story.

It is the storytelling accent that assuredly elevates “Nier” beyond all reproach. Though characters are poorly designed in visual terms – adhering, self-consciously we might add, to strict role-play archetypes – the off-the-wall script and witty actor delivery successfully ground its emotional punch. In this respect, we are forced to mention Liam O’Brien’s Alan Rickman caricature as a spiteful flying book, which is charmingly delightful and whose comedy is, by itself, well worth experiencing the game for. At its core, you find the tale of a father whose daughter is on her deathbed, struggling to find a cure for her mysterious disease. It develops with sinuous contours, starting with a cheery Campbellian adventure set-up in search of mystical items, but then developing into bittersweet bounding scenes between father and daughter, only to then peak in its final revelations with profoundly dark and grievous sequences which question all of players’ actions. It’s clear enough that Taro set out to reprise Ueda’s “Shadow of the Colossus” tragedy and, perhaps for the first time since it, a game comes real close to evoking the same feelings of mourning, emptiness and sadness, even if by use of far more mundane and trivial mechanisms. It is that heart – such a rare quality in a videogame – as well as its vicious and subversive punch that help elevate it above mere inflexion on past titles.

Elegy, parody and tragedy all at once, “NieR” is as the Pygmalion, a poor and unrefined work dressed in the most lavish and fashionable apparatus. But while its exterior may often seem wooden, artificial and downright fake, it hides a soul yearning for authenticity. And so, what it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in the honesty and thoughtfulness it applied in its study of genres and tropes, in the end showing far greater taste and vision than the supposedly creative mongrels that surround it.

PN03 – “XXIst Century Ballet”

Shooters have become drab, dusty, old, lifeless. Where once was hypnotic color and lightning fast movement, today live slow trotting grunts that move, act and talk with the elegance of a world war II tank, framed in military fantasies as daft as the worst of Michael Bay films, all nitty gritty serious in the utter ridicule of their pretend violence with overblown gore and show-off pyrotechnics that express only the most basic and hollow forms of jubilation. Even from a strict mechanicist point of view, these are dead pieces, inert and bound by such tight wraps of genre chains that you can hardly fathom how the word new still manages to get tossed around when adjectivizing them. Such harshness is, we believe, the best way to describe “PN03”: by contrasting it to what today goes by the name shooter.

Rooted in classic shoot’em up tradition, Shinji Mikami (“Resident Evil”, “Killer7”) chose to conjure the clinical rigor of arcade variants inside the subjective perspective of 3rd person shooters and then arranging everything in a tempo-driven gameplay that evokes the music rhythm genre. The trick starts with Mikami breaking the dogmatic laws of usability by stripping players from controlling movements in their entirety; in a twist of design genius, the main character movement on the x, y and z planes is swift and agile, whilst any diagonal which cuts across these is hindered with resistance. From a player’s point of view, this friction results in a design inscription that forces spatial dislocations to be made only across the planes, basically turning play into a game of strict Cartesian vector movement, not unlike a 3D version of “Space Invaders”. Gameplay has you move according to specific lines as if they were instructor steps for a futuristic dance, dictated by movement limitations and placement of obstacles and enemies. The fictional framing for this choice is that the main character, Schneider (a voluptuous Samus-Aran-meets-Ulala mercenary) enjoys listening to techno while dispatching her enemies. As you play she looks like a refined elegant refrain on Neo’s shooting, as she sways and spins and jumps and wheels almost faster than the eye can see, dodging attacks with feline grace, her waist seductively swinging whilst her arms flicker in and in such flicker rain laser death upon her robotic foes.
The game’s essence is minimalist. Control is simple and because of it, playing becomes a matter of pattern acquisition – which enemies come from where, which geographical features can you use to your advantage – in the end leading to a methodical learning of the dance you must perform to end each level with success. Performance art is actually the closest notion to what you feel while playing “PN03”: somewhere between playing a classic shooter, with its frantic pace and need for quick-reflexes, and the psychological enthrallment of a contemporary dancer tuned to electronic music, moving so as to achieve perfection in every stride of beat and emotion. Shneider’s bodily animation is, in itself, a thing of aesthetic expression, her sexuality never falling to the point of vulgarity, her characterization molded by strokes of classical beauty made futurist, all lines smooth, symmetrical, balanced, god-like. The surrounding scenarios are equally grounded on minimalist ideals with the least possible amount of detail employed, either in stark contrast with Schneider – the exterior scenarios, dirty in dead brown earth, the sky acidic green – or in perfect harmony, – the interior scenarios all white clean sci-fi corridors, all brisk lines and curves (evocative of locations in “Space Channel 5” and the overall ambiance of “Breakout” reinvention “Cosmic Smash”). The soundtrack mostly consists of the diegetic music which Schneider indulges herself in, with competent but uninspired dance music dominating the landscape. Narrative also follows the minimalist ensemble in an ersatz of “Blade Runner’s” Dickian identity theme, conveyed through a couple of cutscenes and some inter-level written dialogues. If any strong criticism can be made to the videogame’s shiny exterior, it lies in the unfortunate repetition of the same models for different levels, a clear sign of the production issues which aroused from a convoluted development period.

“PN03’s” unrecognized relevance cannot be missed. The focus on dodging bullets by dancing your way through them, sliding to cover as necessary and shooting only in small windows of opportunity has become a mainstay in contemporary 3rd person shooters. “Gears of War” is the poster child of such a current, accompanied by a myriad of copy-cat followers all hailing to “Kill-Switch” as their defining forefather, but “PN03” not only implemented that gameplay loop much before, as it did it with a style and eloquence which none has acknowledged nor come close to reprise. Even Mikami’s spiritual sequel for the West, “Vanquish”, has nothing on his despised little masterpiece, for it traded women’s beauty for men’s brute strength, in an overt concession of authorship to dominant trends of the market. Make no mistake, “PN03” is so much more than what goes by the category “shooter” that even placing it in the lineage of the genre seems like an insult. For it is not an over-indulgent piece of discardable entertainment. It is sheer kinesthetic bliss, a ballet of sights and sounds and bodily movement that has a life of its own. It is videogame expression distilled to its pure form.


State of the Art – “A Play of Reason”

Erwartung" (Expectation) by Richard Oelze - 1935

Erwartung" (Expectation) by Richard Oelze - 1935

The years pass, and I keep hearing the same tiresome things – “videogames need to be fun and good videogames are fun”. Such blabber is repeated ad nauseam, as if each and every repetition would grant increased strength to such arguments. When it comes to reason, there is no strength in numbers, I’m afraid. Refined versions of this dogma are constantly discovered and implicitly subscribed by all (for example, the absurd idea that fun would actually be a synonym of a wide breadth of emotion) with very few dissenters shunning this perverse logic of mindless hedonism. The other ubiquitous dogma is that “videogames are art”, and that there is nothing to stop them from being so, since they are the product of human creativity, have aesthetic value, exist in a medium, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc, etc. These two beliefs are usually feverously defended by the same people, though they are rarely discussed in tandem. With this article, I decided to elucidate on why these two are incompatible, using a very simple rhetorical discourse. I am consciously avoiding, as much as possible, the discussion of “what is art” given that it is a hugely complex question which I am more than incapable of addressing without sitting on the shoulders of far greater men than me. And please take this exercise with a grain of salt.

So, let’s have fun with some logical play and see where it leads us, shall we? Let’s start with some axioms!

Axiom 1a. Music need not be fun. Axiom 1b. Great Music isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 2a. Dance need not be fun. Axiom 2b. Great Dance isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 3a. Painting need not be fun. Axiom 3b. Great Painting isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 4a. Sculpture need not be fun. Axiom 4b. Great Sculpture isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 5a. Architecture need not be fun. Axiom 5b. Great Architecture isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 6a. Literature need not be fun. Axiom 6b. Great Literature isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 7a. Theatre need not be fun. Axiom 7b. Great Theatre isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 8a. Photography need not be fun. Axiom 8b. Great Photography isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 9a. Film need not be fun. Axiom 9b. Great Film isn’t so because it is fun.

If these axioms are accepted, then by the simple power of deduction, we can establish the following:
Traditional artistic mediums, also named Art or fine art, have been established as sharing a number of defining and qualitative properties which do not intrinsically possess any relationship whatsoever to the word fun, its semantics or any popular understanding of the word.

Ergo, regarding the following popular propositions:
1a. Videogames need to be fun. 1b. Great Videogames are so because they are fun.
2. Videogames belong in the realm of the arts, to be placed alongside Music, Dance, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Literature, Theatre, Photography and Film.

The first clause, part a, establishes that “fun” is a sine qua non quality of videogames, needed for their definition. Part b proposes that “fun” is also a quality that should necessarily be pursued, as it establishes not only form, but value, and as consequence, function. The second is merely a statement that Videogames should be seen as a new object whose categorization falls in line with the same properties as those of the Art mediums. This assumes that, while not entirely the same, there must be a sufficient amount of similar properties between them, both in form and quality, that allow for the establishment of a pattern that is common to all these elements.

Thus, we can say that either

  1. Videogames do not belong, substantially, to the group definable as Art, and thus Proposition 2 is revoked, on account of different classification and valuable criteria pertaining to Videogames, namely the “fun” criterion. Videogames should therefore be inscribed in either a previously established category, say ‘play’ or ‘game’, or be presented with a previously inexistent category of artifact, for example, ‘game-art’.
  2. Videogames, to be Art, are defined and valued according to other criteria that have aught to do with fun, therefore allowing for a transposition of similar properties from previous artistic mediums, in the process revoking Proposition 1. As corollary, much of what has been written in academia and journalism about Videogames would be wrong and should instead have complied to different standards of definition and qualitative assessment, mostly as adaptations and expansions of similar criteria present in Art, completely outside the realm of “fun”. This means that “fun” can be present but its presence or lack thereof is besides any point that can be made about the videogame medium.
  3. Both proposition 1 and 2 are correct, which therefore must entail a complete overhaul of thinking regarding what is traditionally considered Art, including canonically held properties. Given the stark contrast between those of Videogames and the aforementioned mediums, then the very concept of Art which was explicitly or implicitly contained in the acceptance of such mediums as Art must be revoked. And so, we enter a Paradox, since we established these as axioms in the first place. This does not mean that Propositions 1 and 2 are false, merely that, if they are true, we must re-define Art from the ground up, looking to our past in the light of a new conception for the word and its semantics.

Now, simply take your pick. As anyone who reads this blog might have guessed, my position on the matter is that the second option is my personal answer, though 1 and 3 are equally as defendable.

  1. is a skeptical and otherwise very wise conclusion, which I feel is typically made by traditional art scholars (among them, if I accurately understand his position, my friend dieubussy), who do not accept that something so enrooted in ‘games’ and ‘play’ could ever be conceived as art proper. There is much to backup this idea, including a lot of ideas from previous articles of mine (some being available in this blog).
  2. basically revolves around the idea that we must refund all the knowledge on what defines and constitutes value in the Videogame medium, with the consequence of the term videogame itself being obsolete (for a wide number of reasons again previously discussed). Known proponents of this current are the ‘notgame’ movement and probably even some rogue narratologists and simulationists (these are extremely reductionist terms, they merely serve to illustrate what they defend, in abstract).
  3. as I see it, is the contemporary consensual answer from inside the medium. It is the way almost all scholars (from all areas) and journalists and players perceive the problem. The idea is, to put it in simplistic terms, that the many elites that defined the Arts in the past were wrong, and what we now need is a more open, free, popular and accessible interpretation of what constitutes Art, one which validates Videogames and their ‘fun’ (and most likely, many other mediums).

P.S. I’m sure many of you will find a number of fallacies in this reasoning. Please, point them out.

Wave Foam – “NeoGAF Reply”

Apparently, someone liked my “Xenoblade” review so much they placed in in a NeoGAF forum [you can read it here]. Thank God someone still reads this wretched, god-forsaken blog! And thank you for your good taste user SomeDude.

I decided to reply here to some of the comments. I would gladly do it in their forum, but activation of my account still hasn’t been possible. This text was not written to be interpreted as a defensive counter-argument – I do not feel, in any way, offended or insulted by these remarks. Many have I heard before which speak the same ideas and of the same ideals, and many have I refuted… many times before. Rather, my objective in this article is to merely discuss such ideas for they seem useful as starting points for an in-depth analysis over the nature of my criticism and its relation to the videogame medium.

As a sidenote, I will be more than glad to have anyone who wishes to discuss such matters to comment below. Finally, this is an open article which I may extend or review in the future. Have fun.

BorkBork “I’m sorry if you like her opinions, but GOOD LORD that review was pretentious.”

Indeed it was. If by pretentious one understands I tried as hard as I could to write a piece of deep critical analysis. If you mean it is pretentious in the way it seeks to see videogames as pretentious – as in “pretentious art” – I will also agree that yes, I see games as a high art-form, one which can and should be discussed in as complicated ways as possible. If anything, what videogames lack is pretentiousness itself, as authors and critics are too sympathetic with players and readers, treating videogames as toys for little children, engaging in paternalistic conversation. I say videogames and criticism need to start speaking a new language, one which challenges your preconceptions with new ideas and modes of thinking, something which is hard because in the end, hardship enriches you. We need to stop pandering to readers as amorphous masses that only want to hear what they already know, only because that is the way to get higher sales and readership numbers. I would like for us to start communicating on a basis of eudemonic growth, fostering critical thinking in readers, even if that means not all will continue reading. We should strive for a medium where players’ erroneous notions on art and videogames are elevated and educated and not reinforced and perpetuated and where radical new forms of aesthetic value are praised for their progressive and unconventional and unpopular character. For far too long we have found the discardable and redundant and consensual as worthy only on account of the masses liking and enjoying such trifle things. Cultural fast-food judged superior to cuisine. Now is the time to push for the innovative and exciting and uncomfortable and bizarre and virtuous and complicated and forward-thinking and niche and highbrow. So if this is what you would call “pretention”, yes, I am pretentious.

Feep: “This is awful, awful writing. It’s like the author just reached for a thesaurus and went to town.”

I am perfectly aware that my English is far from perfect, though I would expect that to be understandable given it is not my native language. As to the thesaurus – I actually rarely use one, but if it sounds as if I have a wide vocabulary, the better!, it only means my language skills are a bit richer than I thought. Some of the more unorthodox terms may sound strange, but that is only because their use is rare in informal texts, not really because they are not appropriate to convey the notions which I am aiming at. Every choice of phrasing is filled with intent. If you dislike it, in form or content, there is nothing I can do other than acknowledge you probably dislike me and what I think, my writing being a mere reflex of such things. Some operational terms I employ are admittedly imperfect (for example, “naturalism”), for they simplify and reduce the complexity of what is being described, but these are unavoidable when the object of description is so vast and multi-dimensional. The only moderately adequate way of describing them I guess would be to create art as far-reaching as the original, and of that I am surely not capable.

Feep: “Does he/she even know what a ludomaniac is? It doesn’t make any sense in context.”

Well, I am saddened to say that is perhaps you who do not know what ludomaniac stands for. A ludomaniac is someone who is addicted to a game, playing it compulsively even as such brings about great harm to him/her. What else would you call someone who plays to clock hours and hours and hours and hours of endless grinding, quest solving, trophy collecting and customization, only to build up stats in virtual worlds, whilst getting nothing in return? Videogames like the ones I cite were built from the ground up to engage such people, to deceive and manipulate them with psychological hacks that are also used (surprise!) in marketing. Mechanisms such as experience and action points, gold coins, affinity bars, and all that are nothing but red herring skinner boxes, elements which were not idealized in some naive, genuine way of enriching an interactive experience, by expressing emotion or thought, but indeed were conceived as elaborate ways to deceive people into thinking they are being rewarded and fulfilled for their time. Newsflash: they aren’t. It’s just meaningless hedonism.

mclem: “In other words: How *DARE* they put a *GAME* in there!?!”

It’s not a question of there being a game, but more of a game about what. What is Xenoblade , as an interactive artifact, about? When it is a game of building relationships, helping strangers, understanding new cultures, exploring beautiful new worlds, I think it is a game about something worth knowing and feeling (though others have done it far, far better). When it is a game about tactical combat for hunting game and killing monsters, or a videogame about building stats, collecting trinkets or buying better armory, it is a pointless experience with little semantic depth or emotional breadth. Not only that, but it is, above all, completely redundant in videogame history. Do we really need another game about fighting and grinding? I say we don’t. Given this is the major focus of the game, it is a point of vehement criticism.

mclem: “I mock, but, to be fair, it seems to be a very accurate review – by someone who cares about story above all.“

It’s not about story. It’s about what the whole experience is about, what it expresses and conveys to us players. This is through a story and art and interaction gestalt. Naturally in my opinion, Xenoblade whilst not having a great narrative, is still much more competent in expressing something through it, than on the gameplay end. Which is why my review may sound “narrative-art-biased”, because it reflects the strengths of the author and its work. Games with minimalist narrative and aesthetic would receive a different treatment, as other examples in my blog attest to.

mclem: “I would argue that what it did to the gameplay is new, technically marvellous, and *by no means safe*.”

A game about killing monsters, leveling up, with overbearing HUD, thousands of gamification carrots to keep you addicted, complying to practically every genre trope known and even taking various successful elements from popular games of the past  – how is that not safe? How many times must we see the same things over and over again?

SecretMoblin: “And much of it reflects matters of personal taste”

Of course it is personal. Critique is always subjective and always reflects one point of view. You have yours. I’m fine with that. I question why should I express others opinions when they are probably much better at it than I am. We need to embrace diversity in criticism. The notion that a critic has to be objective is what in the end amounts to his complete redundancy, for he is forced to comply with people’s own perverted expectations. I am here to question those with a new outlook, not repeat what others already do, and never to give you what you already know. If you like game A, fine. But don’t ask me to agree with that. On the contrary, grow from knowing different opinions which though opposite may enrich your knowledge of the medium, and of the games in question.

SecretMoblin: “Also, it’s filled with questionable statements: “still sole 3D ‘Zelda’ masterpiece, Koizumi’s ‘Majora’s Mask’, “…exorbitant, opulent ambition in terms of set design (also a whim which Takahashi seems to revel in)”, “…inherited from such ludic antichrists as “Monster Hunter”, “World of Warcraft” or “Dragon Quest IX”, etc.”

Indeed, and such bold statements are meant to be just that: bold. They were meant to question status quo and show my unique point of view. Also, how Xenoblade interacts with videogame history, which games it refers to, what does it properly reinterpret of the past, which currents it abides with, etc. That is what I call criticism.

SecretMoblin: “Also, as much as I adore Ueda, not every post-Ico game that uses soft lighting is necessarily inspired by him.”

I think there are plenty of reasons to see Ueda in Xenoblade. Not in the sense of a “carbon-copy”, but in terms of influence. The presence of two gigantic colossi is usually a big tell-tell.

mclem: “Amusingly, I’m also a proponent of the ‘games as art’ idea – but unlike the blog’s author, I don’t believe the artistry is limited to the ‘traditional’ forms of artistry: the storytelling, the art style, the audio.”

I don’t believe that and I don’t see how one review could have lead you to jump to that hasty conclusion.

mclem: “I believe that there’s an artistry of game design, too; It’s quite possible to have a visually superb game that has no *soul* (By reputation, I’d say perhaps FF13, but I’m not qualified to talk about it directly). It’s also quite possible to have an utterly visually bland game that nevertheless has an inspired design (Tetris).”

Tetris is, to me, one of the finest pieces of videogames ever made. And it is so because it is unique and immensely expressive (perhaps one day I will write a piece on that). Which is more than I can say about a great deal of Xenoblade’s gameplay. And that’s my point.

SomeDude: “Yes, but even then most game reviewers still review games like they’re refrigerators (or like consumer report). She’s a breath of fresh air.”

Indeed they do. And all I’ve been saying and writing, which some might not like is precisely because I care about videogames as more than just consumption items.

Feep: “Also, yes they are, all the fucking time.”

Not in European critique, but I must admit the blame in forgetting that US reviewing is so different (and in my view, much worse, precisely because of mantras such as “must be fun”, “must have bang for buck”). Is that what art is? “Fun”? Something to be quantatized by the hour?  To be valued face its market price?

exhume: “What I’m finding ironic is that the review is assigning a numbered score to a game they’ve tried to criticise as art…”

Critics judge value. A number is just a more violent, provocative way of getting a point across, and it has been, for many years, a mainstay in all sorts of art criticism. Of course, the text is by far and large the most important part.

Gvaz: “Also that review: “Lost Odyssey is better””

Opinions. Have a problem with that?

Gvaz: “Also she gave FO:NV a 1/5, AC2 a 2/5, dead space a 2/5 calling it derivative LOLLL, and batman a 2/5. I simply can’t agree with her.”

And I still think the same of those 4 games. Is my view different from the mainstream? Difficult to understand given mainstream values? Yes, it is. Read the reviews and you’ll understand why.

Gvaz: “I’m not going to disagree on that. She also gave LO a 5/5 which I feel is good”

Today, I might not give it such a high mark to Lost Odyssey; my opinions do change with time and that review harks back quite some years. But I still think it is more interesting, on many levels, than Xenoblade (read my review for the why’s).

Remember, the value I attach to a game, symbolized in the numeral, is not a measure of how entertaining it is, how much “fun” it is, how long it lasts, how technologically adept it may be, how economically feasible it is to buy it, nor how probable it is for you to like it. My valuation attempts to describe my judgment of each work’s cultural value, its newness, uniqueness and coherence, its genuine personality, its expression, its capacity to speak to the human condition, to arouse subtle emotions and to provoke us with exciting questions. My valuation is an aesthetic judgment, pure and simple.

Gvaz: “I just feel her other reviews put into question about the validity of her complaints with this, as it tells more about what she expected/wanted out of xenoblade rather than what it delivers. It’s not really fair to judge a game based on that.”

How come? We all judge based on a number of ideals we have composed out of our own experiences and knowledge of the field. We all judge games based on what we feel a game should be like. Imagine if a game would be crappy on purpose. Should I give it high marks for sucking, only because its authors thought that sucking was good? Or would you judge it anyway for basically sucking? In the end, you and I just happen to have different conceptions of what a valuable game archetype is. And it’s healthy to have such different opinions, as it enriches medium discourse. Imagine if everyone liked the same games and wanted them all to be alike. Oh wait…

Well, that’s it. Hope you enjoy reading this and feel free to comment. Would love to hear everyone’s opinion on these issues. Big hug to the NeoGAF forum!

Xenoblade Chronicles – “A Poor Man’s Epic”

Videogames paved with cultural references are a long-standing tradition in Japan, with a constant mix of popular and high-brow, western and eastern citations being a mainstay not just in our medium but also in manga, anime, music and film. “Xenogears” mastermind Tetsuya Takahashi (executive director, concept and writer), upholds this logic wholeheartedly, making it a defining theme across his career. In fact, perhaps even more than with others, we can easily judge his merits solely guided by which authors and artworks serve as inspiration for his stories and design. Based on this, we can instantly understand “Xenoblade’s” greatest fault – its appropriation of good and bad in equal measure, with apparent blindness over which is which.

A long standing disciple of George Lucas’ space operettas and his Campbellian mono-mythology, Takahashi always strived to embody that unique sense of magic and faustian spectacularity in the interactive means. “Xenoblade” is, first and foremost, a baroque fantasy novel, devilishly ornamented with meticulous arabesques that spin the plot round and around, with quick and mad turns that make your head spin and tingle in anticipation of their insights and feel tremendous pleasure at the unfolding of their complex revelations. Dismally, unlike in his defining masterpiece “Xenogears”, Takahashi chose the easy way out for his newest release, catering to a larger audience by avoiding his trademark labyrinthine, overwrought philosophical ramblings which added much-needed depth to the lush, but inherently superficial exterior of his tales. You can still find subtle nuances to some of his most cherished obsessions, from classic science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick), to Norse Mythology to Jung, but you find these so subdued and diluted it pains to see them written in with such levity.
It’s not just that the narrative is too much “Star Wars” and too little “2001” but that the aesthetic framing embitters its unfolding, with Japanimation antics robbing dramatic charge out of nearly every cut-scene. The fact is that “Xenoblade” ventures equally as often into “Evangelion” as it does to “Gundam” and “Super Sentai” territory, never managing the right equilibrium between its serious fictional background and the action-frenzy, humoristic silliness which is inherent to anime. Even more terrible is that this ill-fashion is deepened by its interactive fluff, which speaks the same base language. Vehemently criticize it we must for its ludomaniac tendency to cater to videogame sugar-junkies and their needs of excessive longevity, number of quests and achievements and customization and mechanics, inherited from such ludic antichrists as “Monster Hunter”, “World of Warcraft” or “Dragon Quest IX”. The game manages to somewhat balance that off by embracing Matsuno’s “Final Fantasy XII” semi-naturalist tactical combat and copying the socio-temporal dynamics of unjustly forgotten and still sole 3D “Zelda” masterpiece, Koizumi’s “Majora’s Mask”. The largely artificial gamification-driven architecture so becomes a tiny tad more human and genuine thanks to that astute addition, meaning you’re not just grinding your way up the statistics ladder, but being rewarded with snippets of insight on major characters and inhabitants, their world’s lore, personal stories, daily lives and relationships.

But the ‘coup de grace’ that just manages to save it from redundancy and utter lack of taste lies in the most welcome of citations to Ueda’s second masterpiece, “Shadow of the Colossus”. Herein, that sense of scale and vast unhindered exploration is taken to whole new levels, exponentiated in a clear exercise of exorbitant, opulent ambition in terms of set design (also a whim which Takahashi seems to revel in). The whole of the game-world is, quite literally, on top of two giants, with each scenery representing a small anamotic part of them, from the knees to the arms to the torso to the heads to the internal organs. “Xenoblade’s” geo-architectural venture baffles the mind for its scope, but it is the minutiae of its characterization that brings about admiration for the virtuosity involved. Technologically, it is a feat that deserves praise, with a rich aesthetic treatment (led by Norihiro Takami) gently pushing you to explore that insanely large world. Each setting has its own unique sense of visual and aural style, forming a body of  eclectic work covering several different themes, from warm naturalist pieces with nigh absurd texturization detail, to gentle dream-like landscapes with soft, hazy light (again Ueda), to more traditional, industrial science fiction and bright sweet fantasy pieces. These are all accompanied by a profuse mix of musical tracks very in line with what’s expected from J-RPG canon – symphonic opuses, j-pop melodies, Black Mages style hard-rock, etc. The diverse variety in composers (ACE+, Yoko Shimomura, Manami Kiyota and Yasunori Mitsuda) elevates it just slightly above standard fare, with some astute echoes of Sakamoto’s YMO work and Hisaishi’s melancholy making it shine in a few tracks.
Like its references, “Xenoblade” walks the fine line from genial to menial with uncouth bravado, leading to a confluence of pleasure and disgust that perfectly exemplifies the current state of its genre and even the medium itself. Bittersweet though it may be, we easily concede it to be one of the most fascinating epic adventures we have encountered in the recent past, it just pains us to also see it as one of the worst when it comes to delivery. In the end, we must look elsewhere to justify our verdict, and here dismay is the word of choice: “Final Fantasy XIII” is pathetic to say the least, “Fallout“, “Mass Effect” and their peers are all US, all muscle, no heart. “Lost Odyssey” is superior, but remains too classicist, too close to 90’s “Final Fantasy” to be understood as new. Truth of the matter is that traditional trope-constrained RPG’s have been on the decline, and whilst progressive ventures – “Folklore“, “Demon’s Souls“, “Yakuza 3” – have made the genre grow, propelling it towards the future, it would be dishonest not to admit we missed a nice, cozy little genre piece to keep us warm and comfy and dreamy and naive and childish at night. May “Xenoblade” be just that – a new and technically marvelous but fundamentally safe J-RPG. The popular and consensual reference for a generation where once none stood.


P.S: A small error was found by a user, concerning the name of J-RPG band, “Black Mages”. I apologize for the mix-up.

From Dust – “…of the Dawn and Dusk of Man”

Eric Chahi’s comeback was unexpected, the return of the prodigal author straight from the golden age of videogames into the cesspool of contemporary times. Seeing as his previous venture, “Heart of Darkness”, was “Another World” complemented by a Spielberg imaginary, one would expect any new work of his to be further evolution of his adventure masterpiece. Such expectations were soon abated, as “From Dust” was quickly established to be a strategy game. Produced by Ubisoft no less, the grand evil birth-parent of the greatest brood of mediocre sequel-driven franchises (its legacy somehow unrelated to EA’s by some collective medium blind-spot). And to top all that, though highly publicized, Chahi’s participation (like Mechner before him in the “Prince of Persia” series) was not in a lead designer role, instead relegated to “original concept and creative direction” functions (whatever that means). The good news is that, while “From Dust” is clearly a product of its time (today) and place (Ubisoft), Chahi’s influence is there. And that is, to be frank, a hell of a compliment.

The design is deceptively simple: players control a spiritual wind which can take spheres of elements such as sand, water and lava and move them elsewhere to build beaches, lakes and mountains, doing massive geographic make-over (a subtle reference to “Doshin the Giant” as keenly observed by dieubussy). With this environmental palette in hand, you’re asked to help a “Populous” meets “Lemmings” race of indigenous natives survive, build settlements, gain knowledge and reach gates in search of the ‘ancient ones’. The twist is that the rather cumbersome strategy processes which typically undermine the genre are extraordinarily streamlined, molding the game into a simple landscape painting experience, using each level as new canvas for experimentation. If not for its otherwise tainted use, the word sandbox would be the most adequate adjective to describe the game, for more than antagonistic goal-conquering, you are invited to playfully mold the world and watch how everything interacts, in the process coming to understand the governing rules of all – gravity, fluid viscosity, density.

Chahi’s stroke of genius is that, though coherent, each environment seems to have a mind of its own, with devious architectural features that surprise you constantly in the elemental interactions they enable, forcing you to constantly elaborate on your strategies to constrain Nature’s destructive force. The result of your actions is never as you initially imagine and no matter how good you are at the game, your power over the world is always bound in time, as every dynamic rule interacts in such a way that it brings about unexpected consequences sooner or later. The message is clear, Man’s rule over Nature is never complete and forever temporary, forged in unstable equilibrium; the greater Man’s power, the greater the destruction it ensues as reaction. The final level is, in this regard, an excellent verse in this essay, affording god-like powers to your palette only for you to realize that its use inevitably leads to cataclysmic disaster. And while this point is further explored in narrative terms, it is only fully fleshed during the interactive portions of the experience, its simple metaphors shining ever brightly as you continuously struggle to exert your dominion over Nature… and fail miserably.

What is most surprising in Eric Chahi’s return is the sense of awe and mystery he is able to inspire in us, despite the menial genre he chose to express himself in, and the mechanicist form his design took. For no matter how construed by these traits, he kept his mind on subtle emotions that translate into pure aesthetic terms – the eternal dread face Nature’s forces, the beauty of its landscapes, our empathy towards our more simple tribal selves, the folly of Man’s aspirations – evoking them holistically through the artifact, leaving no expressive part unrelated to his vision. The soundtrack alludes to this perfectly, with an emotional score that treats all these movements equally – fierce tribal didgeridoo bass lines in times of danger, mellow ambient tunes in periods of calm. Naturalist depictions in soft impressionist tones further push this contrast – the fiery volcanoes versus the blue summer sky, the bright beachy sand versus mountain’s black ashen rock. Even the tribesmen, perhaps the most poorly treated element in the genre, are given simple but tremendously expressive characterizations, their masks a thing of child-like naiveté, their language both alien and familiar, so telling of the strange, fantastic, but oh so earthly landscapes they must journey through.

“From Dust” has an engineering side to its conception, heavy on rules, math and physics and subscribing to somewhat naïve game design ideals, such as the notion of simple rules enabling emergent (meaningful) gameplay. However, unlike most examples of this marketing-friendly current, such notions are actually translated inside the realm of a work that is purposeful, aesthetically rich and which dares go beyond mere entertainment. And while disappointment over the lack of a spiritual successor to “Another World” is hard to get over, the fact this little game aspires to be so thematically rich as to dare touch the relationships between Man and Nature, Science and Technology, Equilibrium and Destruction, is proof that “From Dust” is the welcome return to form of one of the most talented game designers in the medium. Let us pray that he never has to repeat this long absence.


Child of Eden – “D’lish”

After having finally tried out “Child of Eden”, we confess to be utterly desolated. We so wanted to enjoy the game, for is it not the spiritual sequel to Mizuguchi’s masterpiece, “Rez”? But whereas “Rez” was a techno-voyage through cybernetic seas, a solemn, abstract deconstruction of Nature’s evolution and the dangers it faces in its digital apex, “Child of Eden” reads like a pathetic, naïve vision of life and conception, exuberantly adolescent and saccharine, as if the world were all roses and candy. It’s not an issue of criticizing the exquisite aesthetic and technical work involved in the game’s visual conception, but of questioning the expressive vectors that govern them. Whether this is a result of Ubisoft’s marketing angle or a mere authorial reverie we cannot say, but in an age governed by all but optimistic aspirations (especially in Japan), “Child of Eden” comes out sounding artificial and phony. The whole karaoke aesthetic, with the shiny neons, the pop-flavoured, chewing-gum music with sweet female vocalizations, the new age shooting that gives life instead of taking it; nothing makes any sense to us, and it goes to the point of being shocking to our senses and personal taste. It’s a child’s idea of ‘beauty’, all flashy colors, pinks and blues and yellows, peace and love and harmony and happiness all around, everyone living in communion, cute bears and pretty people holding hands together.

Perhaps even more disappointing is the fact that kinect in any way helps the experience. Controller in hand, “Eden” plays like “Rez 2.0”, which surely isn’t bad in of itself, but renders the work largely redundant. But in kinect mode, where you’d expect a psychedelic trance, you get an uninspired control scheme lacking in rhythm, which never comes to form the hypnotic dance Mizuguchi was so keen on selling – all you do is wave your hand to move the target reticule and wave it vigorously to shoot. And still, despite such limitations, the system is never robust enough to handle your input accurately, constantly going haywire and inevitably breaking the game’s flow (we concede Microsoft’s hardware might be to blame, but that doesn’t make us any happier with the result).  Furthermore, we ended up verifying that which we feared most on these new body-enabled control schemes: concentrated as players are in intense psychomotor play, our brain simply loses its capacity to deal with the overload of audio-visual stimuli, filtering all the aesthetic work into a manageable minimum that allows for an efficient performance. To truly appreciate the aural and visual landscape, one must watch the game being played, therefore killing in the bud the synesthesic idealization that Mizuguchi initially envisioned for “Rez” and aspired to take to new heights with this new title. But if kinect is so detracting of the experience, one wonders why “Child of Eden” was even conceived.

We sincerely hope next time we play the game, we’ll look back at this text and find it dead wrong, shamefully absurd and downright idiotic.  But until then, we assure you, we will whimper in discontent.