ruicraveirinha's Profile - Destructoid

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Hi. I’m a critic of the worst kind (the ones who think highly of their opinions), so I apologize for sometimes seeming arrogant. Since criticism is a part of me, I love to be criticized; so you can have your revenge in the comments page. I myself, see criticism as the only way to improve oneself, so go ahead… just keep it civil.

I’m in love with videogames ever since they started to become a more “artistic” medium. I have little doubt that they are a new and exciting form of art, and will eventually replace cinema as the lead audiovisual medium for the masses. The videogame medium is still young and immature, but it is also bursting with creativity and new ideas, which makes it much more exciting than other mediums.

So, this is my game blog. Here, I will review games and write about games’ artistic trends, history and future. In my reviews, I will take a different approach than most media outlets and magazines. I will take a closer look into games’ art design, plot and narrative, level and gameplay design. The authors behind the games will also be a special point of interest. Graphics, length, and other aspects will be completely overlooked, since I find it ridiculous to evaluate art on a mere technical or value standpoint. Movies and records are never criticized for having small budgets, being too short or not being “fun” enough. They are evaluated for the quality of their workmanship, art, ideas and meanings. So should games.
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12:26 PM on 07.21.2010

Videogame media’s sine qua non condition for a good videogame: being fun. If, and only if it is fun, can it be deemed a good buy, a prime piece of entertainment or what they would foolishly call a work of “art”. Sure, technologically adept graphic engines, seemingly complex AI routines, innovative gameplay design and, occasionally (rarely?), captivating narrative and unique aesthetics can seal the deal. But the first and foremost condition for any review to assess, is each videogame’s “fun factor”. All those other features are, at best, just rationalization fodder for reviewers to find in their hearts if the game is worthy of 8, 9 or 10, B+, A or A+, or the equivalent in whichever scale is chosen by that publication. Of course, this is not just a case of the media, it is also a case for consumers. They’re the ones who determine what media focuses on, and naturally, together, they determine what videogame production focuses on, which is, undeniably, “fun”. But what is fun? What is the meaning that hides beneath this seemingly harmless three letter word, and why do so many of us spend half their waking life looking for it, in film, music, TV and videogames?

Csikszentmihaliy is a psychologist who studied entertainment across different contexts; through his research, he designed a model which encompasses entertainment’s cognitive and emotional basis. He discovered what he called flow, “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. Sound familiar? In reality, flow is more or less what people understand to be “fun”: a pleasurable state of high arousal. But there is more to this “flow”. Besides a profound sense of enjoyment, whilst in flow, people enter a state of deep focus and concentration in their activity, they feel at one with their surroundings, losing any self-consciousness and awareness of the self, and even lose track of time.

Csikszentmihaliy also digresses on the conditions needed for activities to incite flow as a ratio between challenges and skills. According to his studies, for someone to feel flow, challenges’ difficulty has to adapt dynamically to the skills of the practitioner, always being great enough to warrant improvement, but without ever seeming too hard to achieve. When the complexity of a challenge far outweighs the skills of the practitioner, that person loses concentration, building up anxiety, and eventually leading into frustration when the challenge is left unconquered. Conversely, when the skills far outweigh the challenge, the result is boredom. The very definition of a game fits into this challenge/skill model – games are systems bound by rules, in which an artificial conflict is proposed to players, a challenge that requires effort (read skills) to be achieved, and which has different outcomes, some good (win), some bad (lose). As you can see, the game activity has challenges and skills built into its weaving structure which is why ludic videogames can so easily mimic the cognitive and emotional effect of flow (fun) in players.

Fun can thus be understood as a concentrated state of mind in which self, time and space dilute themselves as we become short-circuited to a specific activity. In other words, fun or flow, is a hedonic, mindless past-time, one which we engage for its capacity to release pleasure hormones in our brain for long periods of time. Fun is the very definition of entertainment. Now we have to wonder if fun is really the defining quality which distinguishes good entertainment, good art and good videogames from the bad. If you believe that the best quality a videogame should possess is the ability to waste your time, with you mindlessly feeling pleasure as if hotwired to an endorphin disposal tube, then feel free to continue to uphold the logic of fun. Corporations will be pleased to know that there are more of you anxiously awaiting for your next pleasure fix, i.e. the next XX hours spent vacantly staring at a TV screen. Ever wonder why you compulsively buy games? It is because the “fun” high is, like most highs, shallow and short-lived, your body needs it constantly because it never feels totally satisfied. It’s the media equivalent of fast-food – it tastes sweet and salty in the first bite, but it never really feels satisfying enough, and once you finish eating, you’ll still get a spike of appetite and hunger. It’s not nutritional, but it’s addicting, because that is the only way you’ll keep coming back for more, time and time and time again.

Obviously, the true value of videogames, as in other media, has nothing to do with this “fun”. It’s neither the pleasure nor the challenge in themselves that make up good entertainment. It’s challenge’s semantic value, its meaning and its proposition of growth for each and any one of us. If a videogame only challenges you into mindlessly pressing buttons to kill monsters on screen, then it is worthless. This is a lesson which in older mediums is fully understood. In cinema, for instance, while some critics might praise the latest explosion fest blockbuster, they will consistently distinguish between popcorn “fun” entertainment, and proper films. Very rarely is something as discardable as a blockbuster elevated to film of the year. On the other hand, the same is practically a given every year in the videogame medium. The thing is that movie critics simply expect more out of film than just fun, they expect true drama and emotion – amusement, sadness, anger, joy, relief, fear -, they expect an artist’s views on life and socially relevant issues, they expect added cultural value, articulate narrative discourse and artistic expression. These are the challenges which we should be demanding for videogames. Whether or not they end up being “fun” is besides the point. Good media is additive, not reductive. It does not subtract time from your life, by having it pleasurably slip as sand through your fingers; it adds time to your life with new sensations, new emotions, new experiences, new memories and new ideas. It changes you, changes who you are, what you know and believe in. Fun is not part of this equation, nor ever was.

The problem is that society, because of economic interests, harasses you to continuously seek out pleasure, no matter how shallow and unfulfilling it may be. They afford you sensorial pornography – all pleasure, no emotion. And the deal seems sweet, since you get free pleasure with none of the added cost or effort. But true media bliss has a price: it is demanding, requires work, education and culture on part of its audience. This is the most powerful insight of flow theory: meaningful challenges require meaningful skills. You know that you cannot extract pleasure from great literary masterpieces without first achieving a certain level of maturity, learning how to properly read, decode metaphors, allegories, paradoxes, grasp the sociocultural contexts in which authors wrote, have some idea of genre tropes, formal and narrative structures, and you have read many many many other books before. Then why should videogames be different? Why should videogames be so deep and artistic if even kids can play them? Their semantics so powerful, that even teenagers can understand what they’re about? Why should videogames be so moving and thought-provoking, if all they require is for you to happily press a few buttons for you to feel “fun”? Why would the so-called “great masterpieces of the medium” require no cognitive and interpretative effort to play? The answer, no matter how infatuated we may be, is always the same: because videogames aren’t, for the most part, good media.

Videogames shouldn”t necessarily be fun. They can be fun. But their value lies in everything else besides that which you call fun, all of that which rewards you in deeper ways. You simply can’t be spoon fed “fun” as if a little child and expect to extract something relevant out from that experience. So forget fun. Forget formulas, genres, pre-conceptions, clichés, aesthetic trends, blockbusters and big company logos. Praise videogames that challenge you in meaningful ways. Praise authorship, innovation, personality, uniqueness, ambiguity, non-linearity, complexity, aesthetic view, virtuosity… praise that which challenges you! Praise artistic expression above all else, and if you do so, maybe one day videogames will be more than just lowbrow entertainment.

“Densha de GO!” (roughly meaning “Let’s GO! by Train”) is a quirky train simulator Japanese series. Its game design reeks of distilled arcade elegance – players can only accelerate or brake using a single lever, the goal being to drive the train at an appropriate pace, passing checkpoints below established speed-limits, while keeping schedule and avoiding abrupt stops. Its apparent simplicity betrays its overwhelming depth: as you progress you’ll find yourself nervously changing acceleration almost on a second-by-second basis, hopelessly trying to maximize your train speed as the game continuously harasses you with new constraints. Gameplay presents that delightful addiction which only pure games possess, as one feels motivated to always struggle to improve in that fine art of train conducting.

But, however well designed the game may be, especially when compared to its byzantine western counterparts, its essence only emerges in the obvious care which was placed in the simulation of the train ride experience. Train’s rhythmic humdrum, sirens signaling arrivals and departures, conductors’ announcements, the hustle and bustle of daily-life as people enter and leave the train, the changing weather conditions across the vividly portrayed landscape – everything is emulated for you to feel as if inside a train. This is where “Densha de GO!” creators show off their national obsession with trains, a sociocultural passion born from the intimate relationship that arises from working class men’s need to travel each day to and from work by train. And so, just as westerners admire the elegant lines of a red Ferrari, so do Japanese admire the slick lines of the bullet train. See, their intimacy brew love, and from that love transpires the game’s almost absurd reverence for all things train – their brands and models, technical features, design, specific routes and stops – all constantly mentioned for the delight of the passionate train fans.

This heartfelt desire to homage train rides as some sort of quasi-mystical experience, lead to some of the most interesting titles in the genre: those that employ live audio/video feed of actual train rides as substitute for computer graphics and sound, the “Train Simulator” series (of which the PS3 “Railfan” titles are the most recent incarnations). In these, immersion is downright perfect as you actually witness the train ride as you play, overcoming the reality wall in which so many video games stumble upon. If you’ve ever travelled by train and basked in its view, you will appreciate the possibility of doing so by means of a console, braving through sights and sounds that you’ll probably never gaze your eyes and ears upon, while enjoying a thoroughly entertaining game. Japanese infatuation with trains will surely find a bonding connection with you, therefore achieving the game’s noblest goal – to take you to that special place from whence all love for train stems, in the process serving as an enticing vehicle of cultural expression. And what hidden wonders and lost memories lie in wait, hoping to be evoked by the sweet lulling of the train, as it whistles away through glorious landscapes in its tantalizing, nervous craving for a destination?

No... I mean... seriously? The line which serves as title was actually taken from Eurogamer's hands on article, which to tell the truth I can't even bring my self to fully read, such is the state of shock I'm in. Am I the only one to notice the absurdity of all this? I know I've been beating the ol' "Gears of War gets copied around too much" horse for quite some time now, but this is just plain ridiculous.

More so, is Eurogamer's take on the idea: "At first you laugh. But then you slowly realise it makes sense. " OH IT MAKES SENSE, NOW, DOES IT? Let me see... fantasy film... magic and mystery... little wizard kids... family entertainment... YEAH, LET'S TURN THAT INTO A BLOODY SHOOTER!!! Makes perfect sense! Add some blood, chainsaws, brawny characters, washed out colors and you got yourselves a hit... think otherwise? Well, the long line of successsful "Gears of War" copycats proves it. Corporate logic works that way - find a formula for profit, while it works, keep repeating it till... it don't work no more. The blame, as usual, falls on both the media and audiences for continuing to back such ventures with praise and hard-earned money.

"Gears of War" and its sequel, "Dark Sector", "Resident Evil 5", "Metal Gear Solid 4", "GTA IV" and its liberty city episodes, "Mass Effect" and "Mass Effect 2", both "Uncharted", "Splinter Cell Conviction", "Dark Void", the two "Army of Two", "Bourne Conspiracy", that "50 cent" hogwash and all those I don't remember... when is it going to stop? When are you going to stop buying these games? When will you reviewers say enough is enough? When is anyone gonna wake up to the fact that these are bad games riddled with design decisions whose only intent is cashing in huge sums of money for big studio corporations? They crave on players' infinite capacity to remain iddle, their heads numbing ever so slowly, entering a spiral of mindless dissolution of hedonic pleasure, with no substance to speak of. And forget about just "Gears of War", think about "Call of Duty", "Oblivion" and all other game archetypes being regurgitated year after year. You want new games? Stop buying old ones! They're all crud anyways... all of them add nothing to your experience. Alas, I can already hear your replies even before you speaketh - "BUT THEY BE FUN!!!!!" Indeed they be. And so I take my leave with a hearty goodbye:

"Welcome ye to videogames, the medium in which all crud is justified by a three letter word".

Gears keep turning. Four years after its launch, “Gears of War” remains the template, the archetype, the defining game by which all revolve around. In this mere second in video-games’ development time, there have been dozens of video-games that have borrowed, stolen, or downright mimicked the original “Gears of War”. One would think it was high time someone said enough, but no, the Gears keep turning. What originally seemed like an innocent, pleasing, ostensively dumb military action game, has now become one of the most harmful influences on the industry. When even a critically acclaimed and commercially successful company such as Bioware has to adapt its own model and genre to fit the conceptions of what is now deemed popular… you start wondering where this is all gonna lead the industry. Point being: “Mass Effect 2″, like so many others, is a straight up “Gears of War” clone. Worse even, one that adds nothing to that tiresome template. And it’s not just Gear’s combat that was appropriated, but also the comic-book aesthetic, that gray smudge of shattered beauty. Most of the “Mass Effect” universe now feels drab and life-less, lacking color and contrast, as if the whole thing had been attacked by a de-coloration ray. It doesn’t help that the ambient space-music soundtrack reads like a desperate, uninspired attempt to emulate Jarre and Vangelis: a flat succession of ominous keyboard choruses with no climax or fanfarre. Admittedly, the idea was to make the mood darker and more somber, “The Empire strikes Back” of videogames as they say, but “Mass Effect 2″ has none of the heart or aesthetic beauty of the one good “Star Wars” episode.

Sure, beneath the frantic shooting and the insipid sight-seeing there is still a Bioware roleplay to be found, but even that seems a poor repetition of things of gone by. There is simply nothing in the game’s architecture that wasn’t present in the original “Knights of the Old Republic”… a 7-year-old game. It’s all cleaner and streamlined, denoting a heavy investment (by EA) in terms of polish and user-friendliness, but we couldn’t care less whether a dreary old game is polished or not… it is still a dreary old game. Which is what “Mass Effect 2″ really feels like: a has-been trying to look cool for the younger crowd, by wearing trendy new garments. And whilst we appreciate “Mass Effect’s” new tricks – especially the cinematic aesthetic in character interaction – it’s depressing to see it come to no avail. The plot and characters promise intrigue and plot-twists, delving into cool sci-fi pop-references left and right, but (saving minor episodes) all they can deliver is a never-ending no-thrills ride, with no dramatic insight or thematic depth to speak of. Even “Mass Effect’s” sole redeeming factor – the notion of scale of its universe, brought upon by exploration of each planet – has been duped for a ridiculously boring mini-game which you’re constantly forced to play. All in all, the only minute pleasure to be had in “Mass Effect 2″ lies precisely in its “Gears of War” combat… and we’ve all played that many many many times before. It’s not fun anymore.

All it took for was one brief look at the Yoshitaka Amano title screen in a local megastore for a scream to build up inside. “Final Fantasy”. We grew up with the series, and for that they will always hold a special place in our hearts. Despite we being old enough to acknowledge that they do not represent the epitome of video games’ expression (nor have ever represented), they still come out as great examples of the specific realm of their genre or aesthetic. Like those wonderful storybooks you read when you were younger, or the fantasy films of yesteryear, we look past their ever-lasting naivete and ingenuity, and welcome their heart-warming fantasy. It helps that they were crafted by some of the most gifted artists and story-tellers that were present in the medium: Sakaguchi, Kitase, Amano, Naora, Minaba, Uematsu. These authors breathed life into these childish incantations, making adolescents’ imagination soar high with those beautiful, magical sceneries that the world could never see unless for the power of digital art. But, though our hearts cry with joy at the sights and sounds of many old chapters, they shriek in horror when faced with the XIIIth! Why is this?

Some think we are too old to indulge in such infantile musings... such an idea seems puzzling, not just because older J-RPG’s still click today with many of us, but also because other mediums have consistently shown that family entertainment directed at children is possible. So much literature, film and music is non-age specific, despite apparently being directed at young ones, that one must question why such a reality is not possible in video games. Are we really that old not to appreciate a light fantasy story? We aren’t, and yet, “Final Fantasy XIII” makes us squirm. Why? Is it the clear-cut plot? The plastic theatricality of anime aesthetics? The combat system, high on accrobatic thrills, yet devoid of meaningful strategy and, in a clear step backwards from “XII”, also absent of naturalistic control and animation, drowned in decades of turn-based prejudice? Are these elements worse than they were 10 years ago? Somehow the memory of past titles, however tainted by nostalgia, inclines us to say: these are worse in every possible way.

Perhaps it is just the fact that technology has opened doors that current age video-game creators still are not adept at exploring. Just as “Final Fantasy X” botched the expressive potential of adding voice-acting, maybe “Final Fantasy XIII’s” creators just didn’t know how to fill with detail that which once bloomed with mystery and so powerfully ignited the hidden corners of our immagination. But even that doesn’t explain everything. Because, not only does “Final Fantasy” avoid and even contradict, welcome evolutions to basic video-game language – such as a predominance of spatial metaphors and real-time dynamics – as it seems crafted for audiences far less demanding than those of past titles. Impovirished storyline and characters, gun-crazy action sequences, fast beat soundtrack and sugar cained visuals are all elements that mar the experience of a proper fantasy tale, making it only fully digestible by those with short attention spans, spoiled by the frantic plethora of inputs that governs this information age. Nonetheless, we remain in doubt. We know not why “Final Fantasy XIII” does not resonate with us. Perhaps for all the aforementioned reasons, or perhaps, for none at all. But one thing we take for certain in the midst of these questions: “Final Fantasy XIII” isn’t good. Despite the big budget and technical finesse we’ve come to associate with Square’s productions, the game simply lacks the fine artistic craftsmanship of the past, and thus, it no longer represents the standard by which all J-RPG’s should be measured. And of that, let no doubts remain.

“The Void” has us enthralled at first sight. An eerie melancholic soundscape fills the background, a strong feminine voice entangles itself in a haunting poem [adapted from our very own Luís Vaz de Camões], the screen swerves through the air, gently flying by a colorless cityscape, waltzing near an old withered tree, only to then plunge slowly into a pit of nothingness… death. It all starts with death. That is how you enter “The Void”, a purgatory realm of ether somewhere between life and true death. It’s not named void by accident, it’s an oppressively dark and empty space, a vast sea of absence and non-existence, punctuated with small shimmers of light… beacons of color. These islets of comatose life serve as surreal habitats for the strange denizens of this no-life: the sisters and the brothers. The former are romantic and charismatic interpretations of beauty and emotion incarnate, and the later are grotesque, crude nightmares born out of melting flesh with mechanical weapons. All are portrayed with a pendant for aesthetic virtuosity that cannot be overstated, demanding immediate comparison with Tale of Tales’ own projects. Like the Belgian studio, Ice-pick lodge indulged in sipping inspiration from the fine arts, bringing centuries of haunting beauty into the barren 3D medium. That both their games’ landscapes can be read as breathtaking spatial paintings is telling of this aspiration to “art”. But similarities between the two studios productions end thus, as in terms of formal structure, these could not be more disparate. Whilst Tale of Tales insists in valiantly swinging its art/not-game banner with both ingenuity and admirable perseverance, Ice-Pick lodge clearly upholds and cherishes the conflicting logic of games.

Which brings us to the strange nature of “The Void” as a video game, a sinuous hybrid: half strategic board game, half art-house horror adventure. You actually play “The Void” as an economic management game not unlike “Monopoly” – you plant color, wait for it to mature, collect it, and then employ it to defend your territory and repeat the cycle – , but you also spatially explore the void, delighting in its glorious vistas whilst occasionally confronting yourself with its menacing creatures. All these elements compete for your attention in equally strenuous ways. One must juggle the cognitive burden of pondering every move in the over-world board, managing color in the most efficient way, whilst keeping in mind the hectic, nerve-wracking combat and the heavy, obscure rules which the game forces upon players without explanation. All this, whilst still trying to derive pleasure from the symbolic journey through the void’s bizarre milieu, attempting to decode its metaphors and allegories, as well as its rules on a purely semantic level. It is by far the most puzzling of its eccentricities that it can be so cleanly split into these conflicting halves, as they are not only aesthetically incompatible – inviting antithetical subjective experiences – , as they appeal to different audiences.

Nikolay Dybowskiy’s blind, gluttonous virtuosity may be to blame. In attempting to complexify game design and imbue it with meaning – a western game design axiom, if we ever saw one – he must have lost track of what was most important: player’s relationship with the game. For this, “The Void” ends up being a good example of video-games not being art; there’s a lot of art in it, surely – in the ethereal soundtrack by Vasiliy Kashnikov or the moody 3D landscapes by Peter Potapov – but it plays just like a game, barring any possibility of pure aesthetic appreciation and that vital sense of transcendent beauty which defines art. There’s just no chance for the experience to breathe, as you will find yourself frantically competing with the game. Which is not to say Ice Pick Lodge does not deserve praise; they do, by all means. They’ve created a singular video game with some of the best art and character design we’ve seen in the past years, and backed by a proper budget, which is no mean feat. It’s just that we wanted to love “The Void”. Heartily, with passion and idolatry. In fact, we might have loved it at some point. At the very least, we love its potential to be something more than it is. But it just never loved us back. And quite frankly, we couldn’t guess who it loves… like its beautiful mistresses, “The Void” is a demanding diva that forces you to masochistically labor for its sympathy, only to keep you ever frustrated and desolate no matter how much sweat you sacrifice for it. It possesses the lyrical beauty of a mesmerizing poem, but beneath it lies the cold embrace of a punishing game, one so powerful that when you see through its gorgeous exterior, it will feel as barren and desolate as the void itself… because that’s how games feel.