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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.

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