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10:49 AM on 09.14.2009

Batman/Bioshock Comparisons

We all need a yard stick with which to measure things against and be able to better understand where it lies in terms of quality; nowhere is this need more prevalent than in this medium. However, sometimes such comparisons can be detrimental to the game in question. Not necessarily because the game cant hold its own in terms of quality but, rather, because it creates an image in your mind so staggeringly at odds with the final product that it can taint your initial play through. I recently had this happen to me as I read the reviews of the new Batman game due to the, near constant, comparisons drawn to Bioshock and, while I consider both to be some of my favourite games of this generation, they both set out to do things in very different ways.

What made each of the environments in Bioshock so memorable was the fact that, in essence, they were extensions of the characters who controlled them. From Dr. Steinman in Medical to Sander Cohen in Fort Frolic, each area basically became an anthropomorphised version of these men; twisted and infused with their beliefs, goals and desires. In doing so, 2K games made it so that by discovering more about either the characters or locations, whether through audio logs or visual exploration, you became more aware of the world as a whole. The personality of these men and that of the areas they inhabited became intrinsically linked and inseparable from one another.

The problem with drawing such parallels with Arkham is that, while each location was filled with detail and smothered in atmosphere, none had a character whose existence felt essential in regard to its overall nature. Whether it was Harley Quinn in the Penitentiary, Poison Ivy in the Gardens or Scarecrow in Medical, none of them had more than a tenuous link at best to the location that housed them (Harley is crazy so in with the lunatics, Poison Ivy likes plants so in with the plants and Scarecrow likes to experiment so hes in Medical). The fact that these characters were only temporarily housed in these areas meant that there was no way in which they could have infused their personality into the very brick and mortar of Arkham, as was done in Bioshock.

In fact, even if this had been the case, it would likely have been an unsuccessful mimicry as none of the characters in Arkham are drawn with the same level of naturalism. The thing with each of the main characters in Bioshock is that, while the means they use are proven to be self defeating, we can sympathise with the ends that they aim for. Their goals are understandable; whether this is Ryans vision for an intellectual utopia or Steinmans vision of beauty not as a privilege but as easily attainable to each and every person, these men are shown to have been driven mad not because it was already prewritten into their nature, but, rather, by the excessive means they undertook to reach their dreams.

The best villains are not the ones who are purely evil but, as Anthony Burch said in one of his recent rants, the ones believing themselves to be right. And none of the characters in Arkham, with the possible exception of Zsaz, are drawn with that in mind. Through the audio tapes scattered around the island, we come to see that the vast majority of characters are either pure evil (Joker, Scarecrow) or, rather worryingly from a ethical standpoint, monsters purely because of their physical appearance (Killer Croc and to a lesser extent, Bane). Only Zsaz managed to overcome such simplistic character traits through the discovery that he believes his actions to be helping those he chooses to become victims. That, as they go about their dreary daily routines, we are all waiting for something to happen and that he, through his actions, can make it so. This isnt necessarily a criticism against the game but rather a reminder that Arkham Asylum doesnt set out to have us question its central themes on such a level as they are not intrinsic to the story and plot, ala Bioshock. Rather, it sets out to create a comic book world in video game form and does so with aplomb.

The problem I have with the complaints regarding the final boss flight is that, along with those reviewers who compared the game to Bioshock, Anthony is giving the game a lot of credit for things that it just didnt do. In fact, what he seems to be doing, and Im not condemning this completely, is to apply to Joker certain personality aspects that, quite frankly, were never shown in this game. The whole description of Joker as an agent of chaos, as an embodiment of anarchy, is not something that was brought up in this game but, rather, has been a part of the character in other mediums and was specifically brought to a head in The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan. Now, theres nothing particularly wrong with this kind of intertextuality as, for people familiar with other sources, it can help round out characters further than the game creators had time to do so. Yet it can also cloud judgement. Other than in his reluctance to warn his henchmen of your presence, Joker is just shown to be evil, crazy and to derive some twisted pleasure in toying with Batman. But one of the main differences that he displays with the Joker as played by the recently departed Heath Ledger is that he has a plan. His is one of the schemers that Ledger rose up against in the film. In the end, it is his plan that matters most to him and, for me at least, it made sense for him to do all he could to protect it.

Such comparisons to, what have essentially become iconic pieces of work, whether they are to a game like Bioshock or Nolans Dark Knight do the game no favours at all. Not because it cant be held up to the same level of quality but, rather, for they very opposite reason; Arkham Asylum can stand on its own and needs no crutches to support it. It doesnt need to be given greatness via association but should be judged on its own merits because it has more than enough with which to hold its own.   read

3:47 PM on 09.26.2008

MGS4 Post-Mortem


Some may argue that reviews are completely subjective. However, when you award a perfect score to a game I believe it then leaves the realms of subjectivity. Either the game is as near to a perfect refinement of already accepted gameplay conventions and mechanics as can be produced or it reinvents its respective genre. If we review MGS4 in a bubble, away from the Splinter Cell’s and Gears of Wars of the world and chose to hold it only against the other games in the series than a far more forgiving light is cast upon it; it truly does refine all the ideas Kojima had previously introduced. Yet by holding MGS4 up to the standards already set over the previous years by games of a similar ilk, the light shining upon it seems that much brighter and harsher. The shadows left by the game grow longer and cover, however partially, the good done within it. They may not change your mind about the game but that’s not my intention. I just hope that what I say becomes the flash of light that makes these, as of yet unseen, shadows strike out upon the ground. MGS4 has received more than enough praise, raining down and seemingly cleansing it of its flaws. All I want this article to be is the lightning in that rain.

From both a gamplay and technical perspective, I felt that the game failed to live up to expectations. The fact that Snake can't shoot over objects, only around, made the cover mechanic far less useful than it should have been. While you may argue that MGS4 is a stealth game and therefore criticising a part of it which does not constitute as such is folly let me remind you of the original title’s tag line: Tactical Espionage ACTION. There’s no way you can sneak out of certain sections in the game as Kojima forces you to fight your way out instead and if the means to do so is flawed, it hampers the overall enjoyment of the game. This, coupled with the fact that the game doesn’t even allow you to shoot around certain walls or pillars, makes me feel as if it was something added late in the development cycle and as such didn’t receive the amount of care lavished on other aspects of the game.

I have read reviewers stating that in the same way that Super Mario 64 revolutionized the way we play videogames, Metal Gear Solid 4 revolutionizes the way videogames are presented with seamless transitions between cut scenes and actual gameplay. And some of these transitions do indeed impress. But like the controls, it only goes to highlight what’s missing. Almost every cut scene is bookended by a load, whether that happens at the start or end (it’s rarely both which I am indeed thankful for at least) which then amounts to only about 50% of them actually being seamless yet this was never mentioned. And if I must critique the technology then no amount of love for the series will allow me to excuse the following:

In what I can only assume to have been misjudged codec comic relief, Otacon makes a point of ridiculing the CD system of the first game when he ‘jokingly’ asks you to change discs. However, the bitter irony of this very statement is apparently lost on him. We lose one inconvenience and have it replaced with another: installs. It would actually be quicker to change discs than re-install game assets at the start of every Act. It may not affect many people’s overall enjoyment of the game but when Sony feel arrogant enough to proclaim the wonders of their system while dismissing its flaws in such a blasé manner, I can’t let it go so easily.



But it was the characterisation which truly let me down. When you have invested so much in these characters over the years, you expect a lot in return and this is the area where I felt Kojima succeeded the least. There were hints early on which lead me to be hopeful. In fact, I’ll admit I’m being harsh as it was only until the last act that those hopes were irrevocably crushed. The plot and characterisation kept me playing and praise for this is well deserved. But that has all been given by thousands of players and hundreds of reviewers already. I’m here to deal with the faults which seemed to escape so many.

When Meryl launched her first verbal tirade against her uncle, I was shocked. Not just for her pain but because the Colonel I’d known for so long was no longer merely this 2-dimensional authority figure. He had flaws and vices just like the rest of us. This infidelity (whether you see it as Rose’s or Campbell’s to his own daughter) made him one of the most interesting characters I’d come across in MGS for a long time. He was given so much character that it hurt all the more when it was then stripped away at the end. Kojima’s fairy tale ending for all made me feel as though he’d betrayed his artistic vision. It not only wiped the slate clean for the Colonel but cleansed him of all his personality and interest.

At least Snake and Otacon remained the character’s I’d always loved, always wanted to fight for and with. But even here Kojima backed away from his convictions. The microwave room was one of the most powerful gaming moments I’d ever experienced. Did I dare stop pounding triangle in order to see if my efforts were actually affecting the speed with which he dragged his wretched body along the floor? Hell no. I couldn’t bring myself to do so as I’d done countless times in any other Quick Time Eventful games. I even had to look away as Liquid then proceeded to beat a broken man and was on the verge of shattering him into a thousand even smaller pieces. Then Snake got up and the fate of the world was decided by a fist fight on top of a submarine. Snake’s pain; that which had become my own was undone as he stood up, fit and healthy in order to confront liquid. All which I had felt within the confines of that hellish room was undone in an instant as Snake instantly recovered from his wounds and went out with a macho bang. This has been called the greatest final boss fight in recent games. Yet was it necessary? Liquid is no longer Snake’s nemesis. Snake’s fighting himself. Fighting against his failing body, his own ticking doomsday clock. That’s where the real battle was being lost and won. There was no need for Liquid to appear and destroy all the work done in the prior scenes where Snake was so savagely destroyed.

Although having said this, a word must be said about the montage in the microwave room (praise that isn’t being spread enough even in those 10/10 reviews). Kojima takes a traditional Hollywood device and subverts it. Something I wish he’d done more of. Any other game, any other film would have merely added what is a clichéd and overused emotional device as a bookend to that section. Yet by interspersing it within the actual gameplay itself, Kojima elevated that whole scene into something beyond powerful. This is the sort of genius I wish had been able to shine so brightly through other parts of the game.

One area where I felt this influenced was sorely lacking was in the creation and execution of the Beauty and the Beast Squad: Ever since the first game, Kojima has been attempting to analyse the emotional side of war but what this has amounted to in practice is a stripping down of all other aspects to his villains. The Boss' unit was where he began to limit them to one just emotion; The pain/fear/fury etc. Yet they still felt like people driven to the edge due to broken dreams and lives. By removing the outer layers of their humanity in 4, Kojima hoped to probe the depths and see what drove them on. Yet in doing so they lost all the sympathy we had for them and became single, unchanging, one note characters. Without this humanity, there was no reason to care when Drebin gave you his bed time stories. Even if you give a 2d character the most emotionally engaging back-story you’ve ever heard, that doesn’t then mean that they stopped being that very same 2d character over the past 16 hours. It's not what we are inside, but our actions which define who we are. If nothing of this comes to the fore, then we are never allowed to glimpse it and the characters remain one dimensional and emotionally uninteresting - keeping you detached from them and not caring as we once did for the likes of Sniper Wolf and Psycho Mantis. The fact that each boss fight culminated in the same uninspired mechanic only went to further drive this point home – after all, if you’re going to make them lose their armour, why then have that section play out identically across the board?

What I have said may not change your perception of the game, but neither was it meant to. For even if we search out and see the flaws which cover those we love the most, that doesn’t make us love them any less. As it is with the people in our lives, so it is with the works which populate it. This article is for those who can’t seem to see past the rose tinted spectacles. Who swear that the flaws don’t exist and in their minds already plaster over the cracks which may appear. Once you see past the initial bewitchment, your love may no longer seem endless but what it will seem is real. If you can play the game while recognising the flaws and still choose to cherish it an equal amount, then it truly was the game we’d all been waiting for.   read

9:09 AM on 09.23.2008

Innovation Vs. Evolution

I recently jumped at a chance to get hold of a (much wanted) copy of Zelda for the Wii and thought that, as late as this was, it might still well be worth a go. Twilight Princess was my 12th foray into a series which has been around for longer than I have and, to steal a phrase from Stephen Totilo, while it would undoubtedly be hubris to claim it was the 12th that betrayed me, I feel this to be a somewhat apt a description of my feelings regarding the game in this venerated series and also, like him, quite funny.

I feel like I cannot really blame Zelda directly, it’s not really its fault. The games are, essentially, as good as ever. Well designed, artistically pleasing and a wonderful mesh of engaging (if never overly taxing) combat, devious puzzles and exploration. It’s certainly not for lack of trying or skill on the developer’s part. Then why this feeling of tedium and déjà vu which began to set in as I worked my way through yet another intricate dungeon? If familiarity breeds contempt than I’m afraid I’m beginning to feel as if I know this series better than any single one of my closest friends and our relationship’s suffering because of it.

Maybe I’m missing the point entirely. Perhaps it’s the use of the Wii-mote which changes the experience. Yet while Nintendo have been lavished with near unanimous praise over the innovation they’re currently bringing to the industry, I can’t help but feel that when it comes to the more established franchises, the Zeldas, Marios and Metroids of this world, that they’re playing it safe. It doesn’t do much to change the method of control if the underlying game is practically the same thing we’ve been playing for the past 22 years.


I desperately want Nintendo to finally start delivering on their promises. If you intend to innovate than be sure to do it all the way through. In every new game the player is begins stripped of the equipment and skills of the prior, with each new dungeon built specifically around the one new/retrieved item found within. I think they could easily mix things up and, as a consequence, really reinvigorate the series. Maybe not even that they could, but should. Through years of play, I've already mastered the boomerang, bombs and bow and arrow. Why strip me or something that I've grown so accustomed to? The bittersweet nostalgia of laying claim to them once again is just no longer enough for me. But just as films and TV series (with exception to 24) stopped using amnesia as a convenient device to introduce viewers to a character’s back story, so should such archaic methods be abandoned here.

Back in 1982, another Japanese company, Namco, produced Pacman for $200,000. Now, the average Next-Generation title is estimated to cost $15m. While production costs have tripled in recent years, sales and revenue have hardly changed. It’s becoming ever more expensive to take a chance on the unproven and this fear gnaws away at all the industry giants, even those not usually adverse to upsetting the balance and doing something as radical as Nintendo did with the Wii, a console considered a sure fire flop by industry magnates before launch.

And there are steps being taken in the right direction with Nintendo's ‘WiiWare’. New and downloadable games different to the vintage games already being offered. What's more interesting is that Nintendo isn't only seeking WiiWare from established publishers and developers like Ubisoft and Sega but rather indie developers as well. Shorter, original, more creative games from small teams with big ideas whose products would not be vetted by Nintendo. If Nintendo itself can’t tap into the potential they created in their own system, maybe one of these can.   read

2:26 PM on 09.21.2008

GTA4 - The Morality Sandbox

Koyaanisqatsi - In the Hopi language of the people of northeastern Arizona, this word is used to express a crazy life, one out of balance, disintegrating and in a state of turmoil, calling for another way of living. It is also the title for a cult documentary of the same name made in 1982. A documentary film consisting of neither dialogue nor vocalized narration, more a dialogic work, where the poetic and musical themes are so ingrained within its own framework as to make it, in effect, a visual tone poem. A tone set by the juxtaposition of the images and music. Any meaning this film may contain is gained exclusively from the beholder. The film's role is to provoke, to raise questions that only the audience can answer. It is not in predetermined meaning where the value of a work of art is measured but rather, meaning gleaned from the experience of the encounter. And just as this work mixes differing forms of artistic expression, it itself engages in a dialogue with them. All art is dynamic, relational and engaged in a process of endless re-descriptions of the world. We never, in other words, speak in a vacuum.

As Godfrey Reggio said of his film, ‘The encounter is my interest, not the meaning. If meaning is the point, then propaganda and advertising is the form’. And if that is indeed where the value resides, what better way to transmit it than through videogames, a medium which privileges agency over empathy; where the journey takes precedence over the destination. If it truly is your own shaping of artistic encounters through which we create meaning, then a game where you shape and are shaped by the events around you is best placed to do so.

When Rockstar released their teaser trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV, it was pretty much a direct lift from Koyaanisqatsi. They even used Philip Glass’ score from the original, incidentally, the first score he had ever composed for a film, if unwillingly so. But fate and free will have never been on the best of terms. As Glass had never intended to make music for films, so Dan and Sam Houser had never planned on creating the bestselling video games series in history. One which has gone on to smash every record in the entertainment industry. Below is a scene taken from the film with Philip Glass' song Pruitt Igoe, which will be instantly recognisable as from the GTA4 debut trailer also included.



Hoping to become rock stars the two British born brothers joined BMG Music in London and in 1993 joined BMG Music's interactive division after which they founded Rockstar. Their early days in the music industry have left an irrevocable mark on each game subsequently developed. Respectively, the past 3 major GTA games have had an original line up of more than 800 songs from which cuts were then made. As Glass’ score is integral to the storytelling and tone of Koyaanisqatsi, so the soundtrack of each game affects your own experience of that particular journey. Because art is collaborative, our engagement with it is a species of interference. As the separate artistic mediums within the game (whether audio or visual) participate within a discourse, so we do with them. We cannot read or watch anything new without creating it ourselves.

As we draw meaning from that film through its combination of visual representation and sound, so we do the same from our actions on screen in GTA IV. Where that film has no real, preset and determined meaning, so GTA IV has no set path down which you tread. The sandbox genre which it helped create has been turned on its head. Hegel said of Shakespeare’s characters that they were ‘free artists of themselves’. That is to say, mankind has not only reached the point at which external reality can be grasped in its essence, but men and women are potentially endowed with the ability to remake themselves and their world and in a game world such as the one represented in GTA IV, you are provided with just such an opportunity.

As Hamlet is hemmed in by his "environment of horror," so the GTAs of the past have been restrained by the limitations of the hardware and the moral vacuity of their settings and protagonists. The new world of Liberty City represented in this latest instalment is a far cry from the one seen in 2001’s GTA III. As this has been remade anew, so have the characters inhabiting it. No more has the morality been left to the wayside, no more can you go on a rampage and no longer feel the consequences. This is not a story of rags to riches, a glorification of crime, rather of rags to slightly better rags. The moral awkwardness of the protagonist’s situation is fed into a degree of decision-making on your part, too - take a life, save a life; choosing who to side with. There comes a point where you can no longer play this as you did the GTAs of the past. Now it feels so at odds with the main character, a man haunted by his war torn past and whose Faustian pact with the criminal underworld stems not from a sense of selfish self advancement but from a loss of hope and loyalty. But more than this, as you play you can no longer do so without being drawn into that very discourse upon which the game world is founded upon.

Koyaanisqatsi- the expression of a crazy life, one out of balance, disintegrating and in a state of turmoil, calling for another way of living. Superficially it may seem more than an apt description of a game series which has become notorious for gratuitous violence and anarchy. But look deeper and you realise that you are forced to examine yourself as you play. It provokes and raises questions unthought-of in a GTA title and through this meaning can be extracted. If even people who make games where you can run over hookers have a sense of the wider culture and morality, there’s hope for the industry yet.   read

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