This is not a post about Mass Effect 3's ending. Of course, the ending is fine. No, it doesn't account for the whole of player choice during the last five minutes--but you get plenty of choice and repurcussion for previous choice during the entire rest of the game (I brought the same Shepherd through all three). No, the final reveal doesn't make a lot of sense--neither did the endings for BSG or Lost or every William Gibson novel ever written, but nobody started petitions to force the creators to change those. It says a lot that after years of trying to get games recognized as art, huge swathes of the community still seem to be blissfully unaware of what that would actually mean: artists don't have to alter their work just to fulfill your expectations.
Ahem. Not a post about the ending.
Although it would serve everyone right, I think, if Bioware's upcoming patch just removed the treacly "stargazer" narration from the end.
I think the progressive side of the gaming blog community tends to spend a lot of time calling out the many, many ways that developers screw things up, via sexism and racism and all the other various -isms. This is a good thing--public shaming can and does have an effect on the industry. But lately I've wanted, as a counterpart, to give credit where credit is due when things go right. And for all its issues, I do think Mass Effect 3 gave me a pleasant surprise when it came to its take on LGBT rights.
The game contains a number of same-sex couples, but the moment that really stuck out for me comes early on, when Commander Shepherd drops in on the ship's shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, to find him replaying a recording by his now-deceased husband. The dialog doesn't make a big deal out of that--it's not a "More You Know" teaching moment. It's just a guy who's torn up because a loved one was killed. I like to think that it only underscores the in-game banality of gay marriage that Bioware then makes Cortez a romance option, for people who really enjoy playing as "creepy rebound Shepherd."
The usual suspects have, of course, chimed in, and it's genuinely heartwarming to see that EA isn't taking their demands seriously here or elsewhere. Although, to be fair, when the demands include people using headlines like "rebel fleet surrenders to gay empire," they're not exactly struggling against the eloquence of history's greatest activists here.
There are still plenty of other deeply problematic nits I could pick with ME3: the weird and uncomfortable "sexy robot" character, the lingering shots of Miranda's leather pants, or female Shepherd's anatomically-correct armor plate, to pick a few. The Asari still seem like they were imported from one of the Star Trek episodes where Will Riker makes out with Aliens of Low Self Esteem. But progress doesn't come all at once, and I'm glad to see that neither Bioware nor its parent company is rolling over the moment they get hit with some criticism.
Now, if they can just grow a backbone when it comes to the
ending parts of
the game that this post is not about.
Belle and I thought our shipping containers full of all our worldly possessions would arrive from Virginia on December 8th. Turns out they hadn't left the East Coast. Now it's due Friday, we hope. Merry Christmas: we got ourselves all of our own stuff!
So in addition to missing our bed, our cooking utensils, and all our books, I've also been out of luck when it comes to console games this month. This is a funny reversal from the month where my laptop was out of commission. I like this better, though: PC gaming was where I started, and its independent development scene still puts together the most interesting titles anywhere, in my opinion. So I've been having fun knocking out some of my PC backlog, left over from Steam sales and random downloads. Here's a sampling:
Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It's Just Not Your Story has the longest title since the Dejobaan catalog, and if title length were an indicator of quality, it would be really good. Unfortunately, it's not. Where its predecessor, Digital: A Love Story was a mix of 1990 BBS hacking with a cute story to overcome its repetitive "hunt the phone number" mechanics, Don't Take It Personally is basically just one of those Japanese choose-your-own-adventure games, except with extra tedious high school drama. You click "next" a lot, is what I'm saying. The theme it's trying to present isn't nearly strong or coherent enough to overcome that.
I love Brendon Chung's Flotilla, which remains the weirdest--but most compelling--version of full-3D space combat I've ever been able to find, and it scratches a quick-play itch that I can't get from Sins of a Solar Empire. Since I was having a good time revisiting it, I went looking for Chung's other games and found Atom Zombie Smasher on Steam. A mix of tower defense, Risk, and randomly-generated RTS, AZS is one of those games where you think "this isn't that great," and then realize you've been playing until two in the morning. It also has a deceptively complicated learning curve.
One of the games I've had sitting around on Steam from an old sale was Far Cry (and its sequel, but I doubt my 2007-era Thinkpad will run Far Cry 2 very well). For some reason I seemed to have formed a lot of ideas about this game that weren't true: I thought it was an open-world shooter (it's not), I thought it would be dynamic like STALKER (definitely not), and I thought it was supposed to be a decent game (it's pretty boring). The one thing I'll say for it is that I do like the honest effort at making "jungle" terrain, instead of the typical "corridor shooter with tree textures," but that wasn't enough to keep me playing past the first third of the game.
Another holdover, one that fared much better, was Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. It's not a comedy game per se, but it is often very funny: although it lacks the satirical edge and black humor of Oddysee and Exoddus, it retains their gift for writing hilariously dim-witted NPCs. It's also deeply focused on boss battles, which I kind of love (I felt the same way about No More Heroes, for similar reasons). The controls suffer a little on a PC (this is a game that really benefits from analog movement), and there are a couple of out-of-place difficulty spikes, but otherwise it was great to revisit the Oddworld.
I couldn't quite get behind indie adventure Trauma, unfortunately. It's a very PC title, part Myst and part Black and White, but it feels bloodless. Ostensibly the fever-dream of a photographer caught between life and death after a car wreck, the bland narration and ambient music never gives you any particular impulse to care about her, or reason to believe that she herself cares whether she lives or dies. An abrupt ending doesn't help. Trauma is arty, but there's no arc to it.
Speaking of indies, I finally beat the granduncle of the modern independent game, Cave Story. It's an impressive effort (especially given that there's an entire series of weapons and powerups in there that I completely skipped), but I'm not sure that I get all the love. The platforming is floaty--even at the end, there were a lot of jumps I would have missed without the jetpack--and the "experience" system seems to undermine the shooting (if you start to lose a fight, your weapons will downgrade, meaning you'll lose it faster). That said, it really does feel like a lost NES game, dug up and somehow dropped into Windows. The parts that are good--the music, the sprite art, and the Metroid-style progression--are all very good. But the parts that are frustrating, particularly a couple of incredibly frustrating checkpoints, are bad enough that I spent half the game on the edge of quitting in search of better entertainment.
Finally, I just started playing Bastion. The gorgeous texture work pushes my older video card, but I think it makes up for it by pushing a relatively low amount of geometry, so it plays pretty well. The clever narration gimmick is strong enough to make up for the fact that it's basically Diablo streamlined to the absolute minimum. I've never really been a fan of Diablo-style games--I don't care about the grind, and the controls feel strange to me--but we'll see if the story is enough to pull me through it.
Between our upcoming move and our recent wedding, it's not a great month for deep thoughts. So let's talk about something much, much shallower: Batman: Arkham City.
The going question, since it was raised by Film Crit Hulk, is "how sexist is Arkham City?" And the answer is, as it sadly tends to be in these discussions, "really sexist." But honestly, I think it's as much because the writing is very lazy this time around as it is the misogyny of the developers.
Let's be clear: there is one, and only one, reason that I like Batman, and that's the cartoon series that ran from 1992 to 1995. Striking a balance between Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" and the camp silliness of the Adam West TV show (tilted toward the former as much as a kid's show could be), it presented a version of the characters that was smart and well-shaded. It also introduced the "two voices" gimmick for Batman and Bruce Wayne, retconned several villains to be more interesting, and brought us Mark Hamill as the Joker (not to mention creating Harley Quinn as his codependent partner-in-crime--a relationship, incidentally, that Arkham City also fails to capture). That's impressive work for something that aired between "Tiny Toons" and "Freakazoid."
Arkham Asylum, the previous Batman game, was written by one of the animated series' head writers, Paul Dini, and it borrowed a lot from the show's reinvention of the character. As a fan of the show, even despite the "realistic" art direction, it felt like the animated series tie-in I would have wanted as a kid. But after the first five hours of Arkham City, I had to look it up online to see if the staff from Asylum had even been involved. In comparison, the new game's premise is wildly silly, the dialog is clunky, and Batman's actions veer inconsistently back and forth to meet the demands of the plot (such as it is, being a tedious stream of fetch-quests and scripted blackouts). Where's the humor? The wit? The arresting set-pieces? Why is Batman so grumpy?
A general air of forced macho grittiness is typified by Robin's cameo partway through the game's second act, when he saves Batman during a rooftop ambush. The two immediately get into a petty, ego-driven shouting match for no apparent reason, which comes across as incredibly resentful on Batman's part given that Robin just knocked a ninja off his throat. When the Boy Wonder seems to be the more mature of the Dynamic Duo, you may want to reconsider your script.
Now, I'm not trying to excuse or minimize the sexism that exists in Arkham City. If anything, it's the opposite. In contrast to those who argue that the sexism ruins a good game, I'd say instead that the sexism simply puts the insulting cherry on top of a badly-written sundae. I mean, seriously? It's bad enough that they couldn't write a funny Joker this time around, they've got to stack it high with misogyny to boot?
(The fact that laziness and misogyny go hand in hand also says something about the tolerance for sexism in the game development community. After all, this is an industry where the art director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution felt perfectly comfortable to stand in front of a public audience and describe his philosophy of female character design as people he'd like to have sex with. It's an atmosphere only Michael Bay could love.)
The general critical consensus seems to be that such terrible writing is particularly shameful because it's a great game, but I'm honestly not that impressed with it mechanically. Arkham City is set up as a Metroid-style progression, where new gadgets open up previously-visited portions of the map. Most games of this type start out with the main character de-powered, but City gives Batman most of his gadgets from the first game. As a result, it just feels cluttered and game-y: ice grenades that create floating platforms and a zap-gun for powering doors don't feel like Batman, World's Greatest Detective. They feel like they wandered in from Zelda in order to justify a sequel.
The same thing applies to the combat, which was one of the defining high points of Arkham Asylum. The foundation is still there, but they've crammed in extra enemy types that each require a flow-breaking special combo to counter. The worst of these are the shielded enemies, who take forever to dispatch because you can't land more than a single hit on them at a time, and have a tendency to crowd in during uncancelable animation frames to knock Batman out of his combo. It's an endlessly frustrating design, compounded by the awkward controls and the fact that few (if any) of the bat-gadgets do anything demonstrably helpful during combat (or out of it, really). Meanwhile the new open-world city--which is a genuine evolution--prioritizes these imbalanced brawls over Asylum's tense stalking arenas.
Part of the danger of sequels is that they exist in an entangled state with their predecessors. A great sequel--to pick an on-topic example, Nolan's The Dark Knight--makes previous entries look better, especially if it can weave in and question their themes. Arkham City isn't all bad. I finished it (granted, it's not very long). But it's definitely a disappointment, and one that reflects badly on its inspiration. This isn't the Batman I admired as a kid anymore, because what City tries to fix about him wasn't broken.
When it comes to Deus Ex, I'm a contrarian: I think the second game was far better than the first, which was an ugly, buggy, tedious mess. Having finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's probably the best of the three, assuming you skip its bizarre racial stereotypes. That's not just because the mechanics are better--although they are--or that the engine no longer looks like a bad Dark Forces mod. What I find most praiseworthy about Human Revolution is the way it actually engages with science fiction on a level deeper than laser swords and nano-babble.
Fundamentally, this is a game about progress. The developers use transhumanism and human enhancement (not to mention stabbing people with your robot arm-swords) as proxies for the ways that innovation interacts with class, with government, and with culture. This is all pretty standard fare for sci-fi, but it's something few games set in a science fiction world bother to raise. You don't see Gears of War dwelling on the morality of war, or Portal (for all its genius) drawing explicit lines to our relationship with science. Whatever annoyances it might have, I really respect Human Revolution for grabbing a big concept and taking it seriously.
This thoughtfulness extends all through the art design, which is genuinely great--probably the best since Mirror's Edge, in the way that it's both striking and still very much a video game. The visual theme that Eidos Montreal reportedly wanted to emphasize was Rembrandt, which means there's a lot of grainy, gold light bathing the scenes, outlined in clean digital polygons for interactions. The character animation during dialog could be sharper, but the visual worldbuilding is very thorough, and there are a couple of setpieces (like the all-white room late in the game) that are quietly impressive.
The attention to visual detail extends to the costuming, which really carries the Renaissance theme. But this is also a game about people merging with machines, and so mixed in with the capes and the ruffled collars are garments made with a kind of "low-polygon model" structure of tesselated triangles--as if some future fashion designer will be inspired by Battle Area Toshinden. Which is not, honestly, at all implausible, and is a pleasant change from the usual dystopian leather fetish. Even the body armor worn by the soldiers evokes a combination of iron plate and corsetry. Also nice: Adam Jensen's obligatory black trenchcoat is topped by shiny black velvet shoulder panels in a floral pattern, which I think is what all the hip cyborg messiahs are wearing this season.
There's a long history of games that compete visually based on fidelity and/or horsepower, like every iD title ever. And then there are games that go for highly-stylized rendering methods, like Team Fortress 2 or Wind Waker. Human Revolution operates somewhere between the two: it's a mostly-realistic engine, even one that's a little bit behind the times, being used to render a realistic world with a strong editorial style. It has a fashion sense, so to speak, one that helps to pull together its theme and world. I think that's part of why it feels so much more cohesive than the generic cyberpunk of the previous two.
But does it ultimately succeed in making a statement? It's one thing to raise provocative questions, but another to actually pose an argument. I think the real shame is that Human Revolution gets held held back at the last moment by being a Deus Ex title, meaning that it privileges pointless choice over point of view. Late in the game--late enough that it's comically irrelevant to the plot--two characters make their pitches for and against regulation of human enhancement technology. Reach the very end (this is no spoiler) and you'll be given the option of picking one of those plans, or two other equally-unsubtle choices, all of which are literally just a button-press away from your final save point. It is, just as with the original games, entirely cosmetic and consequence-free.
The problem is not that the developers needed to pick a side, but that the final choice feels needlessly reductionist. It comes after hours of stories that examine the costs and benefits of progress from all angles: exploitation of workers, addiction, medical advances, relationships, and scientific ethics. Human Revolution does a surprisingly good job of presenting these with nuance and depth, and then asks you to pass judgement on the whole issue in the most biased way. In contrast, Bioshock set up its political and economic dilemmas, stewed them with a set of rich characters (goofy final boss aside), and then just left them there for you, an approach that's substantially less insulting than "Press 1 to exalt Ayn Rand's values of selfishness, press 2 to embrace socialist altruism..."
In the end, that's why I suspect that RPS's John Walker was right to say that this is smartly-made by smart people, but it's not a smart game. Mechanically, it's sound: I enjoyed playing it much more than I ever thought I'd like a Deus Ex game. It looks great. It presents a complex world filled with interesting situations. And then it undermines much of that credibility--not all, but a large majority--by reverting to Choose Your Own Adventure in the name of nostalgia. This, fellow gamers, is why we can't have nice things.
There are three consoles stacked behind our TV. They're the retro platforms: my SuperNES and Dreamcast, and Belle's PS2. I think they're hooked up, but I can't honestly remember, because I rarely turn them on or dig out any of the games that go with them. They just sit back there, collecting dust and gradually turning yellow in the sun, like little boxes of electric guilt. I'm almost starting to hate them.
Most people probably have a media backlog of some kind: books they haven't gotten around to reading, movies they haven't had time to watch, music they can't give the attention it might deserve. But I think gamers have it worst of all, for two reasons. First, the length of the average game, especially older games, is a huge obstacle to completion. Second, there's a lot of hassle involved for anything going back more than a generation.
Belle and I are trying to reduce our physical footprint, so having to keep older consoles around "just in case" grates, but emulation's a mixed bag even when it works. Worse, I have a really difficult time tossing old games that I haven't finished: how could I get rid of Virtual On, Chu Chu Rocket, or Yoshi's Island? Those are classics! I'm also prone to imagine unlikely scenarios during which I'll finish a game or two--my favorite is probably "oh, I'll play that when I get sick one day" as if I were in grade school, a plan that ignores the fact that I'm basically a workaholic. If I'm sick enough to stay home, I'm probably too ill to do anything but lay in bed and moan incoherently.
Having realized that I have a problem, one solution is simply to attack it strategically--if I can only decide what that strategy would be. Should I work backward, from newest to oldest? Or start from the SuperNES and go forward through each platform, gradually qualifying each one for storage? Clearly, the "play at random" approach is not narrowing my collection with any great success.
There is, however, another option, and ultimately it's probably for the better: to simply accept that the backlog is not a moral duty. I don't have to play everything. I think gaming culture is very bad about this: the fact that many gamers grew up with certain titles lends them a nostalgic credibility that they probably don't entirely deserve. And frankly, if the titles I'm considering were that compelling, I wouldn't have to force myself to go back and play them.
I'm hardly the only gamer I know caught between practicality and sentiment. The one plan that would unify both would be digital distribution on a neutral platform--the current XBox and Wii emulations fall far short of this, since they just lock my classic games to a slightly newer console. I'd love to see a kind of "recycling" program, where I could return old cartridges in exchange for discounts on legitimate ports or emulations on a service like Steam or Impulse. After all, even without the trade-in value, I sometimes buy Steam copies of games I already own just because I know they'll then be available to me, forever, without taking up any physical space.
Game publishers probably won't go for that plan. I can hardly blame them: the remake business, just as with the "high-def remaster" film business, is no doubt a profit machine for them. But I don't think it'll last forever. Just as I buy fewer movies these days, since I'd rather stream from Netflix or rent from Amazon Digital, the writing is probably on the wall for buying software in boxes. That won't eliminate the backlog--but it'll certainly clear up the space behind my TV set.
Our cat will be thrilled.
I always kind of hoped that they'd never release Duke Nukem Forever. It was like the game industry's version of The Aristocrats: this protracted, ostensibly-unfunny period of anticipation that became more and more amusing the longer they insisted that there would be an actual game produced at some point. After 3D Realms went kaput, publishers could have traded the title amongst themselves every few years without any intention of actually, you know, publishing it. Just to keep the joke alive, they'd change formats every few years--now it's a flight sim! A platformer! A hybrid of RTS and five-card stud poker! For people like me who played Duke3D in high school, it would be a kind of warm, nostalgic touchstone.
Unfortunately, Forever is getting a not-a-joke release this year by Gearbox, and that means we have to be reminded of how unbelievably stupid its predecessor really was--a legacy Forever seems intent on continuing (my favorite part of the linked article, in which it's explained that there will be a "capture the hysterical stripper" mode in the game: "Expect outrage from the mainstream media." Well, yeah. As there should be.) Enter the Suck Fairy, stage left.
Hey, I thought Duke3D was hilarious: the one-liners ripped out of cult action movies, the pig cops (see, they're cops--who are pigs!), the seedy locales filled with pixelated women. I was also fifteen years old. These days it's just cringe-worthy. And kind of sad, when you think about a team of forty people all working hard to build a seedy, low-fi red light district. It's true that the game was a work of shaggy creativity in multiplayer, but we forget how much of that was true of the unpolished genre of the time: Heretic let you turn your enemies into chickens with a "peck" attack, after all. Gameplay doesn't excuse content.
Duke Nukem Forever probably won't be the dumbest thing released this year, or even the most offensive. Frankly, I have difficulty getting up the energy to even be annoyed at a franchise that's so obviously lazy. But I wish they'd just be honest about it. You don't see the writers on Epic Movie insisting that their tedious, offensive film actually draws attention to the problems of sexism and plagiarism, but that's exactly what Gearbox has done with Forever: they've claimed that it's a net positive for society if women's groups get some publicity out of Duke's misogyny. On an unrelated note, the Arsonists' League of America apologizes if they set your home on fire, but you have to admit: it really drew attention to the problem of arson-related crime in this country.
Back when I was in college, I bought a Dreamcast and a copy of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, and played a metric ton with my roommates. We actually maxed out the "time played" counter at 99 hours that summer. The thing about MvC2 is that it looks like a button-masher, but if you're at all competitive (and we were), it becomes a gateway to systematic obsession with the underlying mechanics of Capcom fighters. The Dreamcast was also the first chance I'd really had to experience the SNK style of fighting game, via Garou: Mark of the Wolves. You couldn't pick two more extreme examples, really: one being a hyperkinetic display of increasingly ridiculous special moves, while the other featured a slower, tactical focus on basic technique executed well.
Super Street Fighter IV falls as much on the SNK side as Capcom is likely to get, post-Third Strike. It's slower and more deliberative than previous iterations, with a greater emphasis on basic moves, and the dual special meters (Capcom loves special meters like Square loves RPG menus) serve to keep matches unpredictable by linking one to offense and the second (more powerful) meter to damage taken. Several of the new characters (Juri and C. Viper in particular) have a very SNK-like flavor, both in their character designs and the feel of their special moves. They also borrowed the "ridiculously cheap final boss" design, although he's toned down markedly from the non-Super version of the game.
Maybe they didn't borrow enough, though. SSIV is apparently meant to be a reboot of the series for the kind of people who, unlike me, are not interested in the nuts and bolts--the kind of people who have no idea that there are 2D fighters that aren't Street Fighter. But that isn't actually backed up by its execution. Part of what I liked about the SNK fighters is that they were diverse in character style, and special moves were almost consciously depowered. SSIV, on the other hand, continues Capcom's love affair with the Ryu/Ken shotokan move set: fully a quarter of the characters are variations on this basic template (seven, if you include Sagat). There are a lot of multi-button special triggers, some of which are overloaded (a two-button chord fires a different move than three buttons), which makes it easy to whiff on the intended move. Plus, I've got a pretty good history with the series, and I still can't pull off half of the super combos consistently, particularly the charge-based ones. I can't imagine a real newcomer jumping in without a lot of frustration.
If I were designing a casual fighter for the home console crowd (and, let's be honest: given the decline of arcade gaming, that's what they're doing here), it seems to me like the first priority would be to drop the classic six-button layout and switch to the MvC2 four-button scheme. There hasn't been a common controller on the market with six face buttons since the Genesis, and using long-throw triggers for basic attacks in Street Fighter is a timing disaster. SFIV uses all six buttons, combining them with some directional movement for alternate attacks, which is a lot for ordinary people to grasp. Although I don't typically enjoy 3D fighters, this is one thing that they got right.
And then I would think very carefully about what a "casual" 2D fighter actually means. It would be great for such a game to introduce new players to the actual, hidden dynamics of a "fighting" game: control of space, timing, priority, and reading your opponent. Piling on with a second (segmented) super meter, two-button counters and specials, and motions like "↓↘→↓↘→PPP" overcomplicates matters. It seems like they're trying to have their cake and eat it too--taking out "advanced" (but easy-to-understand) mechanics like parries and air-blocking, but refusing to cut back on years of tournament-player feature-creep (EX cancels and specials, for example). The result seems "casual" to critics and long-time players, but it's really no more accessible than it's ever been.
Some other random thoughts:
Usually those strengths get countered with weaknesses, like a lack of long-range attacks or a difficult joystick motion. But a shoto character is all strengths: they've got a projectile (fireball), a high-priority close-in attack with anti-air and reversal (dragon punch), and a screen-covering travel attack (hurricane kick). That combination makes it easy to set traps and take control of a match. For more than a decade, a large part of the Street Fighter metagame has been devoted to overcoming the generic shotokan character, and it bores me senseless.
Wet is one of those cases where there are interesting things to say about it, but the game itself is not actually very interesting. I feel much the same way about Kill Bill, one of Wet's obvious inspirations: there's a lot of very good commentary on the films, and they serve as a vast trivia nexus for aficianados, but as actual movies they still bore me senseless.
There was a lively comment thread on The Border House a little while back, when Wet protagonist Rubi Malone was included in a list of "disappointing characters." The conversation went something like this:
To be fair, those are better games with better production values, and that makes it a lot easier to ignore their sins and suffer through their cutscenes, much the same way that someone could enjoy superhero movies while still remaining aware of their numerous philosophical shortcomings. Gears of War may be a gynophobic, racist, power fantasy, but it's a polished game that's painstakingly animated and (despite a paper-thin plot) features good writing and well-directed voice acting. Eliza Dushku, on the other hand, seems to be a very nice actress stuck in "menacing femme fatale" roles after her stint on Dollhouse. As Rubi, she's stunt-cast into a role for which she's not particularly well-suited, represented onscreen by a jittery marionette, and apparently not given much direction. Even Jennifer "the real Commander Shepherd" Hale would have trouble selling the character under those circumstances.
So it doesn't help that Wet is mechanically and technically poor. The controls are imprecise (although I do like the guns-akimbo aiming mechanism) and the slow-motion feels half-baked. Its main gimmick is that it looks and feels like 70's exploitation cinema--all film grain and blood spurts. This is another a callback to Tarantino (or more accurately, co-director Robert Rodriguez and Planet Terror). But part of the pleasure of watching Grindhouse's double feature was the painstaking craftsmanship put to the service of cheap, disposable cinema--it functioned as both an example of, and a tribute to, its subject matter (it doesn't hurt that Death Proof is some of Tarantino's best work). When the game looks cheap because it is cheap, the joke is ruined.
Wet doesn't quite manage a perfect mimicry of celluloid, but more importantly there's no artfulness to it. In his review of Kill Bill Vol. 1, Roger Ebert noted that "for [Tarantino], all shots in a sense are references to other shots -- not particular shots from other movies, but archetypal shots in our collective moviegoing memories." In contrast, Wet is a game that features overcooked settings like a Hong Kong temple and a British mansion, but it doesn't have anything to say about them--they're just there. Same for the vintage concession stand ads that play between levels, or the obligatory smashable crates: there's nothing about these inclusions that's more than surface deep, so they never transcend cliche.
I do find the idea of "grindhouse" in games fascinating. For one thing, it's interesting to see one medium satirize another (see also: the use of video game culture in the Scott Pilgrim comic, and then again--in completely different ways--in the film). On the other hand, there's already a lo-fi gaming aesthetic for developers to call upon for self-parody. Nobody's done this better in the past few years than the original No More Heroes--an overstuffed melange of 8-bit graphics, hideously tiled textures, ridiculous boss fights, and Star Wars jokes. It wasn't a better game than Wet, really, but it had a sense of perspective, and that made a world of difference.
So where does that leave Wet? Unrecommended, certainly. But maybe that's what makes it useful for criticism. In better games, the violence and aggression of the main characters gets buried under a gloss of high production values and the well-worn cliche of Yet Another Space Marine. Maybe it takes a game like Wet--a game that gender-swaps the main character, that controls like Tomb Raider crossed with Tony Hawk--to make it a little more obvious just how much we accept the mediocre in interactive narratives.
Like I said, it's not a very good game. But it is, from the right point of view, interesting despite itself.
One of Belle's favorite hobbies is to take a personality test (such as the Meyers-Briggs) once every couple of months. She makes me take the same test, and then she reads our results aloud. The description for her type never explicitly says "finds personality test results comforting," but it probably should. I'm skeptical of the whole thing, frankly, but then someone with my personality type would be.
I found myself thinking about profiles after having a conversation with a friend about the appeal of Diablo (or lack thereof). I understand the theory behind the Diablo formula--combining the random reward schedule of an MMO with a sense of punctuated but constant improvement--but games based on this structure (Torchlight, Borderlands) leave me almost entirely unmoved.
For better or worse, game design increasingly leverages psychological trickery to keep players interested. I think Jonathan Blow convincingly argues that this kind of manipulation is ethically suspect, and that it displays a lack of respect for the player as a human being But perhaps it's also an explanation for why Diablo doesn't click for me, but other people obsess over it: we've got different personality profiles.
I think the idea of a Meyers-Briggs profile for game design is kind of a funny idea. So as a thought exercise, here's a quick list I threw together of personality types, focused mainly on psychological exploits common in game design. I figure most people--and most games--have a mix of these, just in larger or smaller proportions. Some of them may even overlap a little.
There's probably a good way to simplify these, or sort them into a series of binaries or groups, if you wanted to make it more like a legitimate personality quiz. Still, looking over this list, I do feel like it's better at describing my own tastes than a simple list of genres. I think I rank high for Audience, Mechanic, and Buttonmasher, and low for Storyteller, Completionist, and Grinder--makes sense for someone who loves story-driven FPS and action-RPGs, but generally dislikes open-world games and dungeon crawlers.
Such a list certainly helps to describe how I approach any given title: concentrating more on getting through the narrative and learning the quirks of the system, less on grabbing all the achievements or experimenting with the environment. I almost wish reviewers ranked themselves on a system like this--it'd make it a lot easier to sort out whether my priorities sync with theirs.
In general, I agree with Blow: the move toward psychological manipulation as a part of game design is at best something to be approached with great caution. At worst, it's actually dangerous--leading to the kinds of con-artistry and unhealthy addiction in Farmville and (to a lesser extent) WoW. I don't think we can eliminate these techniques entirely, because they're part of what makes gaming unique and potentially powerful. But it would probably be a good idea to understand them better, and package them in a way that people can easily learn to be aware of them, similar to the ways that we teach kids about advertising appeals now. After all, as other sectors adopt "gamification," industry-standard psychological manipulation is only going to get more widespread.
For every form of media, there are certain works that are considered essential for cultural literacy: albums, books, or films that are so influential or important to the development of the art form, a well-rounded critic should at least have glanced at them. You don't have to like them, but they're part of the zeitgeist. The same is true for gaming, I think. Maybe it hasn't had its version of The Wire yet, but there's no arguing that there are certain canonical games that you're supposed to have played.
Is Planescape: Torment one of those titles? Many people would probably say yes. I'm not sure, but I do know that I feel guilty for quitting it. Not enough to keep struggling through it, unfortunately, but guilty nonetheless. Parts of Torment are still brilliant--they make it obvious why so many people speak of the game in such reverent tones. But those pieces are wrapped in a design that has aged poorly (and it wasn't much to write home about even then).
Let's get the positives out of the way first. More than anything else, Torment's writing is fantastic. It has to be decent, since the game's graphics are crude (evocative, but crude), and there are no cutscenes or close-up shots (everything takes place from a 3/4 perspective). But the writers turned that limitation into a legitimate strength: the world and characters they describe are bizarre, comical, tragic, and rich. Even in the first few hours, they toss out more ideas than most games contain in their entirety: an underground town of well-adjusted undead, sorcery made of blood and thorns, and a main character whose body is a gnarled mess of tattoos and scars. It's hard to imagine how someone could create the kind of imagery in polygons that they accomplish with a little prose, particularly given the technology of the day.
The other thing Torment does right is to completely ignore conventional wisdom on death and experience for an RPG of the time. The Nameless One cannot die by conventional means. This makes for some fun story moments--rummaging around inside your own body for items, waking up in the morgue, using your own severed arm as a club--and if he's killed in combat, he wakes up a few feet away. As someone who hates dying in an RPG and realizing that my last save was two hours ago, I think this is brilliant. I also think it's brilliant that making clever dialog and story choices earns an order of magnitude more experience than fighting. That's a clear declaration of what's important in Torment: story, not swordplay.
But if they were willing to undermine that much of the traditional RPG design, it is simply beyond me why they didn't jettison the rest. If you're going to remove the punishment of combat death, not to mention making it largely unrewarding to fight in the first place, why keep it around at all? Why make me struggle with inventory and healing? Obviously their heart wasn't in it, but they couldn't bring themselves to anger the nerds by dropping it completely.
It's clever to make dialog count for extra experience points as an incentive. It's hateful, on the other hand, to abuse that incentive by restricting dialog choices based on the character's attribute scores. At that point, you're punishing the player for thinking that their choices during the game are meaningful, when really it was the first decision they made--assigning points during character creation--that determines success. The result is profoundly, deeply frustrating: I met a riddling skeleton, for example, but I'm not even given a chance to solve his riddles, because my scores have already determined that I'm not smart enough.
That was pretty much the point where I closed the game and put the disc away for the forseeable future, incidentally.
If only this game had been made a few years later (when RPGs started to become a more fluid genre), or a few years earlier (when adventure games were still profitable). If only it weren't shackled to the Baldur's Gate-derived, AD&D-centric Infinity Engine, or maybe if it could have been made by an indie team willing to shoulder a few more risks. There's a fantastic SCUMM-style puzzler somewhere in Torment, but it's buried under mountains of system and cruft. As it is, I know why this game is important. I know why people like it. But I can't bring myself to start it up again.