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November 2, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»arkham

The Bat Mantle

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.

October 5, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»deus_ex

Illuminated

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.

March 23, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»duke_nukem

What a Mess

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.

March 16, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»street_fighter

Switch Stance

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:

  • Surely, at some point during the conversion from 2D sprites to 3D models, it must have occurred to someone on the staff that Sakura's "fetish schoolgirl" outfit and stalker schtick are incredibly creepy and revealing about the people who created them. Cammy should also maybe put some pants on.
  • Likewise, to modern eyes there's really no excuse for blatant-stereotypes-turned-characters like T. Hawk (stoic, leather-and-warpaint-wearing Native American) and Dee Jay (maraca-shaking, breakdancing Jamaican).
  • It's definite now: the worst part about playing Street Fighter is, in my opinion, the shotokan characters: Ryu, Ken, and their variations. It's not just that there's too many of them (with Sakura being the rare version that actually feels different). It's that in mid-level play, they're just way too dominant. As I said above, fighting games are not really about simulating a fight. They're about control of space and timing, and anticipating your opponent's actions. At heart, each character represents a set of tools for accomplishing that task--some through projectiles, some through close-in attacks and throws, other via high-priority combos.

    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.

January 20, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»wet

Soaked

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:

  • For whatever reasons, Rubi is incredibly unlikeable. It would be nice if she had a redeeming quality or two.
  • On the other hand, it's pretty sexist to insist that she show some kind of overt "vulnerability" or "kindness" when the landscape is littered with unlikeable, psychopathic male characters who do no such thing.
  • In other words, to what extent would someone's reaction to Rubi be different if she were cast as male? Or if she were surrounded by a wider range of well-written female protagonists?
And yes, when you think about it that way, it's true that the problem is not so much Rubi as it is the poor quality of writing in games and movies in general. She's not, after all, dramatically different from the main characters in Darksiders or Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto, except that those characters slot into the idea of socially-acceptable machismo. Having higher expectations for female characters only is, in this case at least, a kind of double standard.

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.

November 5, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»torment

Death Tax

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.

September 2, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»final_fantasy

Press A

Literally the second thing you see after booting up Final Fantasy XIII, immediately following the Square-Enix logo, is a message asking you to "Press any button to continue." This is before you get to the title screen, mind you--before you have even mentally registered that the game could be asking you for input. It ambushes you, frankly. I thought it was a joke at first. It's not. The reward for pressing any button--for me that's the A button, being an XBox gamer by way of Nintendo, instead of whatever wacky "continue" button location Sony started using for the Playstation--is another OK-only dialog asking you to pick a location for your saved games. I don't have a memory card or anything in my XBox, so there's only one possible storage location.

That's three button presses, and no actual choices, in the first minute. First fifteen seconds, if you've seen this before and just hammer your way through it.

The Final Fantasy games have never been about open worlds and nonlinear choice, but they've at least maintained the illusion that the player has options. The thirteenth outing drops all those pretensions. It combines save points with shops and upgrade stations, so there's no side trips. It puts levelling up right in the pause menu. As of the ninth chapter (out of 13), every level is practically a straight-ahead corridor, with a handy automap that reminds you which way to run in case you forget. It is, in other words, lots of button presses, and no actual choices.

This extends to the new fight system as well, which features no small amount of hot A button action, usually to select "auto-battle" for a single character (the others are controlled by the AI). Eventually, Square introduces a "Paradigm" strategy layer on top of all the auto-battling, where you get to choose between different roles (tank, healer, mage, etc.) for party characters, but even granting that complication this is a game that my dog could probably play, if I could just train him to press the big green button on the fighting stick. And then he could play Tekken, too, which would be good for a laugh.

I've played a fair amount of this game while on a week's vacation, in between dance practice and dog walks, and at times it almost seems like it was satire. But it's Square, so of course it's hopelessly self-important. The writing's incoherent, the characters are shallow, the voice acting is sometimes flat, and the cosmology is vastly overcomplicated. If it were any more deadpan, we'd have to check for rigor mortis. On the other hand, I'm still playing and will probably finish this weekend, so it must be doing something right. Not that it would take much: bear in mind, I watch low-budget SciFi channel movies for fun.

I think what fascinates me about FF XIII is the ornery throwback quality of it all. In ruthlessly trimming everything about the game down to the very core of JRPG-ness, Square has made the game more streamlined--easing players gently from one barely-distinguishable fight to the next with only the occasional video clip to separate them--but also made it clear how little their conception of a "video game" has evolved. For all its sound and fury, the result is about two menus (and oh, how Square loves their menus still) away from Chrono Trigger.

There are some great games in my collection that you couldn't have done on a Super NES. Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn't work without higher-capacity media. Sands of Time really needs 3D to sell its acrobatic puzzles. And it's hard to imagine Burnout without the hyper-realistic, slow-motion car crashes. But there's very little in this Final Fantasy, apart from the admittedly-gorgeous art direction, that wouldn't play equally well in 16-bits or less.

And so ultimately, FF XIII occupies a weird space. It's clearly an incredibly expensive game in terms of production values. It's a continuation of one of the most well-respected video game franchises in existence. It's a certain amount of fun to play. And yet, if I were a complete stranger to gaming culture, I have no idea how I would react to this odd combination of lavish graphics, active time battles, and simple menu trees--a distillation of old-school RPG mechanics in a shiny new shell. I suppose I'd just have to press the A button, until it told me to stop.

May 18, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»sotc

Shadow Buffer

There are some games that you really ought to play under emulation only, and Shadow of the Colossus is going to be one of those. It's a beautiful, interesting game held back by the terrible, terrible PS2 rendering chip. Depending on your hardware, if you haven't played it already, you might even be best off emulating it now.

It was kind of surprising to me how bad the texture handling actually was. I skipped the PS2 when it was current, and only really got to sit down with one when I started using Belle's for Guitar Hero. I had bought a second-hand Dreamcast instead, or played a lot of older PC titles on my low-budget tower (calling it 'hand-built' implies, I think, a level of craftsmanship that wasn't present). Both of those had their issues, but they were capable of handling basic texture filtering, and character models didn't shake like a pair of cheap maracas, neither of which seems to have been a priority for Sony's Emotion Engine designers.

Normally, I'm not a graphics snob kind of guy. I enjoy Wii games for what they are, and I've never owned a computer capable of running new games at their top detail levels. I think Link's Awakening was one of the top two Zelda games, even in four shades of Gameboy Green. But my first reaction to SotC when I finally got around to firing it up this week was "wait, is there a way to turn off the Awful, Shimmery Moiré Filter?" Under the Playstation's dubious rendering context, anything more than five feet away from the camera becomes a shifting, grainy distraction. The development team has clearly tried to integrate this into the art style--I think the elaborate hair and stone textures, not to mention the blown-out bloom and grain filters, are a direct result of accepting the platform's limitations--but it doesn't really work. Not right away, at least, and not without interruption. And these ambitious effects come at a cost--even on native hardware, the game's framerate is notoriously unstable.

Unfortunately, the elaborate tricks used to push the PS2 as far as it can go mean that Shadow of the Colossus is a punishing feat for emulators. While recent PC hardware is easily capable of handling titles like the Final Fantasy games, SotC barely manages more than 10 frames a second on my 2007-era laptop. But it's a tantalizing slideshow: even at its native resolution, without the shaky landscape textures and shifty light bloom, you can really see just how beautifully-designed this game was. If I had a little more CPU to throw at it, I'd love to play it there instead of on Sony's temperamental black box.

As a long-time PC gamer, I've been using emulation for years, and this isn't the first time that the experience has been better on a virtual machine. If nothing else, it means freedom from the idiotic "save point" systems, particularly in console RPGs. I've always preferred the ergonomics of a keyboard or my favorite PC gamepad to whatever weirdness the original manufacturer has invented for their input device (Dreamcast, I'm specifically looking at you and your RSI-triggering monstrosity of a controller).

And more importantly, emulation has historically allowed the technical limitations of the day to be upgraded behind the scenes--from removing the flicker of NES sprite rendering (then restoring it, for the diehards) to the addition of mip-mapping and texture filtering on the PS2. My favorite, of course, is the gorgeous pixel-art enhancement of the Super 2xSaI algorithm. If you ever forget how well-crafted the peak of 16-bit gaming could be, play the first few rainy minutes of A Link To The Past in high resolution through a modern emulator. I think if you look at something like Pixeljunk Shooter, it's an unmistakeable tribute not just to 2D gaming, but to the advances that were first made in emulation, now brought back into the fold.

Which brings us back to Shadow of the Colossus and the poor, palsied PS2. As one of those games that'll get name-checked for years to come, and with the PS3 dropping backwards compatibility, emulation may end up a real blessing in disguise for SotC--new players will get the benefit of its stunning art and sound design, but without the crappy rendering. It's just too bad it takes such a monster of a system--a colossus, if you will--to do it, but that problem will solve itself over time. To be honest, I'm almost a little envious.

March 15, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»no_more_heroes

The Garden of Meh-ness

I'm still trying to figure out why I'm playing No More Heroes 2. I loved the first game, which wrapped every bizarre idea that Suda 51 has ever had in gleefully hideous, plush-velvet-and-8-bit upholstery. It was gaming's Grindhouse, all poor taste and subversion. Either the joke's wearing thin, or that's just not working anymore for the sequel.

The plot, for example, is more complicated but says less. It throws in two extra playable characters, one of whom gets only one (short, uninteresting) boss fight and neither of which is terribly interesting. It involves revenge for the death of a character that nobody remembers or cares about. Then it wraps all of the above in a series of flashbacks by some kind of stripper, the details of which are apparently supposed to be a big mystery, but who never really says anything that couldn't have been better summarized or left implicit. There's a lot going on here--and none of it hangs together particularly well. Possibly because it's actually trying too hard: attempting internal consistency asks a lot of an audience when the material is this dumb. It comes across as more unfocused than lovably eclectic.

The new game promises you a lot of fights by starting you at assassin rank 50 instead of 11, but then it cheats by jumping multiple ranks--sometimes lots of them--after a boss. The least interesting boss from the first game was probably Bad Girl, a filthy pop idol who batted bondage slaves at you from a conveyer belt. Few, if any of the new assassins manage to be so amusing, almost none of them have the elaborate setups that were the best part of NMH, and most of them (particularly the Resident Evil-ish Matt Helms and Metal Gear Solid parody Chloe Walsh) fail to rise above their obvious inspiration. Indeed, the parody settings themselves are half-hearted at best, although the bit where the stealth level almost immediately abandons sneaking in favor of killing everybody is a nice meta touch.

They kept the combat system, which is still very good and probably the main reason that I've stuck with it. They eliminated the overworld driving and replaced it with a static map, which would be fine, but then it's like they needed to do something with the old motorcycle code, so there's a couple of completely pointless driving segments (literally pointless--you can't fail them, and they don't have any enemies or challenges, just driving on a gently-curving road). Oh, and there's a gratuitous cameo by Takashi Miike for the hardcore, which is the kind of special feature I can get behind. I wish they'd pitched that in big letters on the box, just to confuse the average Best Buy shopper.

What I miss the most, oddly enough, are the phone conversations from the first NMH. Before each boss fight, assassination promoter Sylvia would call you on your cell phone, which you'd answer by pressing one of the wiimote buttons. Then you'd physically hold the thing to your ear while Travis did the same onscreen with his phone, both of you looking pretty stupid, and listen to an increasingly abusive, sociopathic, and demoralizing series of rants on the boss and your pitiful chances against it. Each ended with a plea to "trust your force, and head... for the Garden... of Madness!" Like so much of the game, they seemed mainly to exist just because the developer thought they'd be fun. But they also served to reinforce the game's driving dynamic: weird, immature nerd Travis chasing his way up the assassin rankings in order to impress a girl who is not only way out of his league, but also completely nuts.

Well, honestly, the whole game was nuts. And I can't decide if my problem with No More Heroes 2 is that it's not crazy enough, or I'm now acclimated to the crazy and the seams are showing through. But I suspect it's the former. For all their flaws, I always figured that part of the fun of games by Suda 51 was that they were one-offs by a disturbed auteur, without a lot of pressure to be successful in the market. Maybe that's why his first real sequel comes across as forced. And while mechanically, it's still one of his better games, I didn't really buy it for the mechanics. There are relatively few people who can still make a video game as outright odd as Killer 7 or the first No More Heroes. It'd be a shame for that to get lost in the rush to a franchise.

March 1, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Retcon

There's a moment early in Mass Effect 2 where your character, the resurrected Commander Shepherd, answers a series of questions about the events that occurred in the previous game. I think what they're trying to do is remind you about those plot points so you won't be taken quite so much by surprise when other characters mention them later on--or, if you're a new player, establish a little context so it won't seem completely random. But because the writing is a little awkward, it doesn't come across as an establishing infodump. Instead, in a surreal twist, it sounds like the characters are participating in a kind of retcon--letting the player's answers redefine their past actions. I love this idea, and wish it wasn't an accident.

A retcon, for the non-fandom crowd, is a portmanteau word for "retroactive continuity," and Wikipedia (unsurprisingly) has a fine list of examples, ranging from Nero Wolfe's birthplace to the altered appearance of Klingons in post-Kirk Star Trek. The retcon is a tradition as old as humanity, but it's rarely invoked in a planned fashion--in part, because it's usually so clumsy. Humans are good at maintaining continuity in our narratives, and we don't take kindly to authors who break their own fictional rules unless they can do so very, very elegantly.

But in video games, we have a sort of special case. Often here (and specifically in the Mass Effect games), the player is in control of continuity to a greater degree than other media. Is Commander Shepherd a woman of principle, or a ruthless pragmatist? The player chooses between these two, or even mixes them on a case-by-case basis. You don't know, necessarily, what kind of person she is until the player makes that decision: does this Commander Shepherd approve of the Genophage bioweapon, or find it deplorable? Does she believe in killing mutineers? What about the murder of treacherous former allies? And if those answers differ, it's up to the player to mentally reconcile them as a coherent character, offering up retconned justifications as necessary.

So why limit this to just the character arc, when a virtual world could offer so much more? ME2's dialog misfire offers a glimpse into a game mechanic where dialog doesn't just define a character, it can redefine the events that led up to the current moment, or the world around the player's avatar (cross a gap by insisting that you funded a bridge, perhaps, or clear out dangerous animals by bemoaning their extinction). If I had the time to spend on personal coding projects right now, that's something I'd explore: a game where you can redefine the state of play just by verbally disagreeing with it. I think it could even be an opinionated statement, not just about the way we adapt stories over time, but also the power of rhetoric to effect change, and the subjectivity of human history.

Or maybe I'm just describing a pretentious version of Scribblenauts. Either way, surely it's an opportunity missed.

Future - Present - Past