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12:26 PM on 07.21.2010

On the Tyranny of Fun

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.   read

11:27 AM on 06.02.2010

Eastern Love, a Densha de GO! + Train Simulator review

“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?   read

7:01 AM on 06.02.2010

“Harry Potter just went third-person shooter”

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".   read

5:36 AM on 05.31.2010

Another for the Masses, a Mass Effect 2 review

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.   read

11:37 AM on 05.24.2010

Heartbreaking Nostalgia, a Final Fantasy XIII review

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.   read

10:26 AM on 04.27.2010

Unrequited Love, a "The Void" review

“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.   read

6:07 AM on 04.08.2010

Hail the King of Thieves, an "Uncharted 2" review

“Uncharted 2’s” introductory moments are an absolute marvel. Most importantly, they represent a clear break from traditional game design logic, showing off exciting new possibilities in terms what a video game can (should?) be. The game starts, as you may already know, with Drake, half-bleeding to death inside a cliff-hanging train (the game opens with a cliff hanger, one can only enjoy the irony). Drake soon realizes, verbalizing it in his signature “oh God…”, that the train isn’t about to hold on much longer, and will soon plunge deep into the gorge. Debris suddenly fall over, plummeting Drake nearer to the precipice, as he desperately clings to a rusty bent hand-rail that stands centimeters away from nothingness. Up to this point it’s cut-scene territory, extraordinarily directed as in the previous game, and perhaps even more so. That warm sense of witful charm is reprised, once again heralding back to the terrain of summer blockbuster movies, of Spielberg and Lucas fame. But what was missing in the first “Uncharted”, soon becomes reality in the second: the embodiment of that same spirit during actual game-play sequences.

As Drake dwindles in the rail, the game kicks in, and you’re in charge. Climbing the train is simple and intuitive for anyone who has ever played a Tomb Raider-esque action-adventure game. But, despite it being absurdly simple to avoid Drake’s death while climbing, it retains a sense of tension and dramatic peril that video-games seldom impose without resorting to actual game-over screens. The trick Naughty Dog employed is devilishly clever: they enunciate danger through pre-scripted events but… it isn’t really there. For instance, the moment Drake nears the end of the hand-rail he’s clinging to, it bends unexpectedly. As you climb, objects keep falling down… a bit too near Drake for his own sake. Later, the second Drake jumps away from another rail, it suddenly breaks and falls. This sequence is simply riddled with these small nerve-cringing incidents that give you the illusion of danger [as you can see for yourself here], without it ever truly existing, as you can’t really die because of them. The whole level, in fact, is nearly impossible to fail, shifting “Uncharted 2″ away from a pure game, and into somewhat of an interactive, yet highly cinematic experience. The game becomes much more tense because of this, as you never have to repeat the sequence, thus maintaining its initial emotional impact intact. It represents as pure a translation as there has been of the concept of a film-like experience into video game terms; it’s all a matter of deception and misguidance, and the powerless witnessing of danger, as opposed to its confrontation, as is common for games. Something tells me that Spielberg would approve.

From then on, the game continues this strategy to impose tension, throwing unexpected events at the player in any given situation. Trains explode, buildings crumble, bridges fall – the sense of playing a roller-coaster film is pervasive. This engagement improves significantly because of all the work and thought that was noticeably invested in understanding and replicating the cinematic language – from the outstanding set design of each exotic location, to the delicious voice and facial animation, notwithstanding the superlative use of camera directing (especially in-game). Cut-scene and game mesh in such natural and emotional ways, it almost begs the question of why didn’t anyone do this before. Nevertheless, not all is rendered with the manipulating edge of the first few moments of the game. As “Uncharted 2″ moves on, it becomes an actual game, with the expected challenges and trial and error sequences. For the most part, it remains an expertly crafted work, exhilarating as few can be, despite the continuous interruption of death scenarios. There’s also the overuse of the by now blasé “Gears of War” combat, that insists on outstaying its presence, but no amount of slow crawling, tedious and repetitive cover combat can impair “Uncharted’s” sense of style and amusement, let alone its humor, both in and outside cut-scenes. It’s just a shame that such “military” influences are not toned down, as the action in “Tomb Raider”, as a way to punctuate the scale, instead of dominating every beat.

“Uncharted 2″ could have easily been one of the most important mainstream games in recent history, had Amy Hennig and the team at Naughty Dog had the courage to forfeit genre conventions and the ridiculous tick boxes which modern action games are governed and reviewed by, like multiplayer and co-op modes. Had that wasted energy been invested in further exploration of the subtle new grounds of action adventure experience which “Uncharted 2″ skims by, and it might have been a shining new example of a new genre. As is, it’s still the best of its kind – as unoriginal in its game-play as others before it, though designed with a finesse, care to detail and artistry that its competitors are sorely lacking.   read

4:49 AM on 03.31.2010

Revisiting Horror, a Resident Evil (2002) review

Today, the name “Resident Evil” can only be associated with a modern brand of derivative military shooters. This is true regarding the main entries of the series – that slowly, but consistently, shed their adventure legacy in favor of fast-paced action sequences and increasingly convoluted plot lines – but also in the numerous spin-offs, of which the rail-shooting kind represents the most obvious and categorical insult to the nature of the original “Resident Evil”. Somewhere between “Alone in the Dark’s” cinematic viewpoint and “D’s” aesthetic sensibilities, Shinji Mikami’s groundbreaking work became a powerful and suspenseful horror video game that would lay the primary foundation of the genre. The bound that united it with its predecessors lied in the essence of the adventure video game – a genre built on the physical exploration of three-dimensional worlds, populated with puzzle pieces and small narrative interludes (in the form of text and cut-scene) that gave the spatial metaphor a narrative texture nonexistent in other segments of the video game strata. Whilst the textual quality of “Resident Evil” – an honorable dêcalage of b-movie tropes - could only amaze players on the most superficial of levels, its brooding atmosphere and tense game play design would surely leave in gamers a lasting mark. This was especially true when considering “Resident Evil’s” crowning achievement – the design of the mansion in which the game took place.

For a long time now, haunted house amusement rides have had a special part in popular culture; the seduction of entering such an ominous location feeds on a primordial instinct to face dangerous situations in controllable environments. “Resident Evil” is surely meant to be played as if a haunted house ride, and what better evidence of this fact than the change from its original Japanese title – “BioHazard” – to the sillier, yet somehow more accurate western translation? Like in “D“, “Resident Evil’s” mansion is designed with a stunning sense of ambiance that hints at danger in every corner. More than the actual fright – of which the now infamous dog leaping sequence has become a symbol – it’s in the anticipation and build up of tension, through visual and auditive cues, that the authors’ deviousness became fully apparent… Hitchcock would surely be proud. It helps that the mansion bears such a portentous and ostensible visual characterization, in both scale and intrinsic detail of its decor, making it humbling to the player. The mansion is, in itself, a work of art – its rendition of paintings, sculptures and architectonic style, thoroughly embodies the concept of an interactive art museum, so in vogue in the mid-nineties. The photorealistic quality of its pre-rendered visuals made the game not only aesthetically beautiful, but also more effective in heightening the sense of presence on part of the player.

These were the notions which the sequels could never truly evoke. “Resident Evil 2" and “3″ no longer took place in claustrophobic, XIXth century mansions, but instead spread the action across an entire city – the dimensionality of the urban landscape inevitably gave a sense of liberty and breathing space to both titles. The often criticized clunky movement of characters – so important in forcing players to acknowledge the dangerous, uncomfortable and uncontrollable nature of their surroundings – was, with each title, softened thanks to new movements and more responsive controls. The scarcity of weapons of the original was slowly amped into a considerable array of weapons, more powerful and plentiful with each passing iteration. In “4", besides a diminished role of exploration and puzzle sections, the cinematic angles were replaced with a pure 3D camera – meaning that zombies could no longer jump from out of the screen unseen. “5" borrowed its aesthetic and ambiance from other games, further compromising and indeed erasing any memory of the original work that was still present in the series. All of these games bore ‘good’ design decisions, sure: each made “Resident Evil” a ‘better’ game, i.e. less frustrating and more fun. But with these nefarious changes it also lost its identity, its charm, and most important of all, its capacity to frighten players, reducing a once great adventure horror game to a mindless action shooter.

Which is why the Gamecube remake of the original “Resident Evil” makes even more sense today than it did back in 2002 – it serves to reminds us of how much the original surpassed its direct (and indirect) successors. Mikami’s return to his original masterpiece only served to state the obvious: the series’ numerous additions and revisions were unneeded, and more importantly, only hindered at conveying the sense of suspense which uniquely identified his original vision. Instead of re-envisioning the game completely (as he would later do in “4″), Mikami focused on getting players to experience what they had experienced many years before – the sense of entering a beautiful, yet menacing haunted house. Narrative-wise the game is identical, and in terms of game play style and level design it is similar enough to capture the original’s spirit, but different enough to stand on its own. Shooting zombies finally became, once again, a conflict with the game itself, a peak in tension that served as a mere punctuating mark in a vast score of exploratory moods. Make no mistake, the remake is not an action game.

Mikami cleverly manages to use the remake to reference other games, like “Clocktower”, and even parody “Resident Evil” itself, but unlike Kojima, he does it with such delightful subtlety and consistency with the fictional backdrop that nothing ever feels out-of-place. He can make the most obsessive and knowledgeable hard-core fan smile without needing to break the fourth wall or giving away the irony of his playful demeanor with an obvious joke. Of course, what most gamers will appreciate in the new version of his classic, isn’t the elegant revisionism, but the update in presentation. Technical digressions aside, “Resident Evil” makes for one of the most beautiful and immersive experiences in recent video games. Every new animation and lighting scheme adds up to a stunning work of mise-en-scéne for each room, which truly makes them shine as part of a virtual art exhibit. The soundscape completes the picture, making the game’s atmosphere as evocative and scary as possible. This remake is one of those rare occasions in which the audiovisual lift was actually used, not as a means of justifying a buy for the tech-savvy buyers, but as a way of furthering the vision of the original work.

Alas, the remake is a memory of a now distant past, a throwback to a time in which games could still balance an underlying commercial logic with an artistic drive that went beyond the confines of fun-inducing game design. “Resident Evil” is slow-paced, clunky, unpleasant and sometimes even frustrating, but only because those are the needed qualities for a survival horror title to elicit a proper emotional mindstate in players. Back in 1996, “Resident Evil” defined the genre, and perhaps not surprisingly, most of its qualities remain unsurpassed still today. Which is why the remake, with its stunning artistic complexion, that so thoughtfully brings the original’s ambiance to new heights, is as worthy of the masterpiece title as the original.   read

10:40 AM on 03.30.2010

Why we need a ‘Citizen Kane’… and why we may never get one.

“Video games are art? Please, don’t insult yourself” – these are the thoughts that cross people’s minds. It’s true. Video games as a whole, have never held up to any form of mildly analytical, critical analysis from an art perspective. That is why (almost) no one reviews games from a purely artistic perspective and there's always a consumer-driven product analysis. Hey, not even me, despite my somewhat pretentious goals can sustain an art critique stance: the truth is, if I were to do that, I would only employ half the compliments of my limited vocabulary, double the insults of my extensive verbiage, and there would be no grade superior to a 3, except for maybe one or two games per year. And even if one admits that some video games are worthy of high brow status, that still leaves out 99.999999999% out in the woods to die, as mildly amusing entertaining products with zero cultural relevance. Why is it thus? Why is it, that when someone poses the Citizen Kane conundrum, the answers unequivocally end up being – “Metroid Prime”, “Ocarina of Time”, “Half Life 2", “Super Mario World”, “Grand Theft Auto 3", “Bioshock”… as if any of these games could really be seen as legitimizers of an art form. Don’t kid yourself, they aren’t art.

It’s been too long. We’ve spent 40 years of the medium’s lifetime sinking in its flaws and short-comings to the point we’ve grown to accept them. We love video games, do we not? And we love what they are, not what they can be! Forget what we think we believe in – that games could be more intelligent, provocative, emotional – we don’t want that. We want the saccharine aesthetics, the frantic rhythms, the noisy soundtracks, the childish narratives, the twitchy interfaces. And we are many. In the mid 90’s, Mac and PC CD-ROM grabbed part of the male adult demographics, and the Playstation grabbed the male young adult demographics. PS2 dug the casual audiences for the first time, and the Wii and Facebook took the vantage and grabbed the last bastion of hope – the girlfriends, moms, dads and gramps. No one is left to adhere. And all of them know what video games are good for – hedonic entertainment, devoid of artistic expression, message, story and authorial verve. Hardcore or softcore, it’s all the same in the end: they’re merely different sides of the same expression, none of it high brow, none of it artistic. Admit it, there is nowhere left to run. We have told the world what to expect of video games. The world heard the call, came along for the ride, and the world doesn’t mind at all that games aren’t what we think we would like them to be. Heck, WE don’t mind. Video games are what they are, and everyone’s cool with that.

If a video game equivalent of “Citizen Kane” exists or comes to be in the future, it is hard to imagine anyone caring about it. Do you think that a truly thought-provoking work that’s interactive, deep, hard to really put your mind around it, that’s about real people’s lives, not some ridiculous fantasy, sci-fi or epic fiction, but a human drama about life, which has no genre or mediocre tropes about, and that didn’t care about entertainment value as much as it cared about its authors visions on life — do you really think gamers would buy it? It wouldn’t fit with our pre-conditioned notions of what games are, it wouldn’t be as ‘entertaining’ as we expect games to be and it wouldn’t give us what we’re accustomed to experience. It’d be dull, insipid and completely opaque to our soiled minds. Want proof? Just see the sales figures and reviews regarding a game that aspires to be art, and you’ll understand that we’re fighting a battle that cannot be won. There have been innumerable adult, pretentious and artistic video games, released year after year after year only to be consistently treated with spite and indifference by media and audience alike. Even something as popular and mainstream as last month's "Heavy Rain" felt the heat for barely trying something different.

Meanwhile, the industry is giving us what we want. Shallow experiences. Game designers can’t risk one tick to make an interesting game, lest they not make enough money to maintain their jobs at multi-million dollar company number one thousand and thirty five. The scientists are investigating how to make the design process more efficient and lucrative for said companies, and also attempting to find out how to better light a pool of blood, texturize a gray rock and increase polygon count in a machine gun. The journalists are debating on how much “fun” the recently hyped triple AAA game really is, which game is actually game of the year, and when is too much violence just too much. Players are twitching like drug addicts for the next fix: hardcore’s eagerly expecting the new FPS, the new RPG, the new Action Adventure; the moms and dads all pins and needles to throw five bills at the new family entertainment set piece which will make them all grow thin and happy at the same time; and the wee-little girls are having a blast gossiping about the next big avalanche of casual, social games. Who exactly is expected to play the artistic game that will tell the world that video games can be art?

We can’t really afford to wait for a “Citizen Kane”. We need to mature as gamers first, because “Citizen Kane” is only a symbol for a collective change in perspective that has to start inside ourselves. If we change, we will find Kane, either in the present, past or future. If all else fails, we’ll create it ourselves. As long as we’re ready to understand it, to decode it, and to value it, someone will tell the world where it is. If we don’t, it’ll go by unnoticed. And right now, nobody is ready or paying attention. There aren’t enough gamers out there ready to embrace a new concept of ‘video game’. Of course, maybe there will come the time when some visionary geniuses pave way for an artistic model of what a video game can be. Or maybe the industry will crash so hard we’ll be obliged to look for interactive art, because there will be no entertainment left to experience. Perhaps capitalism will perish and games will be funded according to a grand communist committee that decides what is worthy and what isn’t, like cinema was in the Soviet Union. Perhaps we’ll magically realize that by not buying the latest FPS, in the long run, we’re telling the industry to change. Personally, I don’t buy it. We need to change first. Start now.   read

9:45 AM on 03.25.2010

I think, Sebastian, therefore I am... a "Machinarium" review

Some games I haven’t the courage to approach with a review. Partially it’s because I don’t think I have the right knowledge or literary technique to express my views or to dissect them properly, but also because I have this unconscious fear of objectifying them in such a way that will make them seem less… special. Like a beautiful, fragile Ming vase, I fear touching them will break it to pieces. This is such a game.

“Machinarium” is, to put it simply, the story of a boy who must free his loved one from captivity. Bullied by nasty ruffians, the young couple was split: he was left to die in a garbage dump and she was imprisoned in a towering dungeon. You follow their journey to escape a corrupt city, as the little boy goes from rebuilding his own body in a scrapyard, to flying away in the horizon towards freedom. Perhaps I forgot to mention we’re talking robots here? Well, as the name so implies, “Machinarium” presents a dystopia whose inhabitants are machines made out of metal foil and rusty screws. But these machines are living creatures in every sense of the word, expressive little buggers whose eyes and bodies move as if they were flesh and blood… their animations (Václav Blín and Jaromír Plachý) are an exquisite exercise in the elegant conveying of intelligence, conscience and, more importantly, emotion. Every character has its distinct personality, simultaneously familiar and alien, but always endearing and lovable. It’s as if someone had given you a magic mirror where you could see this enigmatic reflection of our own children tales, just with robots in the place of humans. The setting itself retains characters’ beauty and strangeness, with each of the game’s backgrounds (by Adolf Lachman) looking as if it were a painting drawn by those same bizarre creatures. The atmosphere borders the ethereal, thanks to a moody color palette and the superb ambient score by Thomas Dvorak. And though “Machinarium” is unequivocally a land born out of the eccentric mind of Jakub Dvorský, this world isn’t as idiosyncratic as “Samorost’s”, marking a departure from that surreal, somewhat comical ambiance, to an almost dreamlike fusion of children animation’s naiveté with classical science fiction aesthetic.

As expected in video game land, the little boy’s ICO-esque quest can only be conquered through the solving of several puzzle-like contraptions. But unlike the nigh non-diegetic barriers that adventure games so oft use to imply interactivity and challenge, each puzzle in “Machinarium” is an intricate part of its world. In other words, puzzles are there for a reason other than you solving them. This subtle twist makes the game’s challenges mirror the fiction’s semantics – construing the odd gadgets thus becomes part of the act of understanding “Machinarium’s” world: its past history, its characters and society. This is the defining element that elevates Dvorský from mere story-teller to video game author – he expresses his ideas with rules and interactions, and not just images and sound. His story, so primitive and universal, beautiful and touching, is a story told through the complex language of video games… it is a story worth playing with.   read

7:20 AM on 03.19.2010

Authorship by Proxy, an "Assassin's Creed II" review

Has it really come to this? I remember a time when designers, whether good or bad, creative or conformed, loved or despised, were authors. A time when authorship lived and died by their creators’ passions and views on what a video game should be like, and regarding a select few, their values and ideas on life. Sadly, “Assassin’s Creed II”, in more ways than one, reminds us that in the video game medium and business, there is no such thing as an author. There is an audience and its proxy and a whole bunch of middle men. Naturally, the job of the Proxy is to serve as conceptual avatar to the audience’s demands, whichever they may be. If the audience finds the game not to be as fun, violent, lengthy or varied as they want, it is the Proxy’s job to channel those expectations into a neatly fitted piece of game design worthy of their money. It makes me wonder if it still makes sense for game designers to take courses on the subject matter… it’d be easier to just let the marketing blokes take them instead, since it is obvious they are currently in charge of video games’ authorship. I know, I know, disheartening, is it not?

Take “Assassin’s Creed”. A game Patrice Désilets and Jade Raymond claimed, with a little help from a well crafted marketing campaign, to be the first ‘true’ next-gen game. A game so revolutionary, it would change the medium’s landscape. Despite its new take on the genre, some black sheep (myself included) disagreed on the game’s status as groundbreaking masterpiece, though the game still sold millions. “Assassin’s Creed” had some glaring flaws: quests were composed of generic tasks, game design was limited and ill-fit with the subject matter (an assassin that kills by day, and spends most of its time fencing with soldiers, had anyone heard of stealth?), story was under-developed, and to nail the coffin, the game repeated itself far too many times, with the game’s nine levels being exactly the same, with merely different wallpaper cities in the back. Flash forward two years down the line, and the accolades are plentiful – “Assassin’s Creed II” is a reinvigorated sequel, its flaws completely corrected, its charm fully blossomed. What changed? Actually, nothing did, except that the audience’s desires having been answered.

Every single critical voice was heard. The People demanded more quest variety – the Proxy gave it. The People demanded “Prince of Persia”-like linear platforming sequences – the Proxy offered them. The People demanded a meaty storyline – the Proxy obliged. The People wanted to swim – the Proxy cast the game in Venice and gave the People swimming abilities. It’s almost pathetic how Ubisoft simply bowed down and let every suggestion become an integral part of the game’s core. Where was Désilets, the quote on quote, “creative director”, during this process? Instead of analyzing his game’s faults, something which requires a deep understanding of game design and its intricacies, he appears to have been occupied checking boxes in complaint lists from a (sadly) uneducated mob. Think about it, does it really matter that you can now explore five generic cities instead of three, undertake a dozen bland side-quest types for obtaining bland generic collectibles instead of just half a dozen, and go through a story with twice the archetypal characters, triple the pseudo-historical context and an exponentially raised number of events that still do not make the plot move one tiny bit before the grand final twist? Oh, but you can now customize your character, with some vague, inventory-oriented character progression system, wonderful! Did I mention, there’s also some of the best (read worst) cut-scene directing and animation in a top-tier game in years? These now revised minutiae were never the problem, but a symptom of “Assassin’s Creed” malady. Of course, the People careth not about such negative ramblings, and looked in awe at all the new blessings the Proxy had giveth them, and all was made well.

I’m not saying that everything is ill about the sequel. The new-age meets catastrophe movie sci-fi plot and Italian setting certainly make it far more compelling to explore “Assassin’s” world, and some of the cities’ real-life monuments are rendered with an architectural beauty worthy of gawking in amazement. Moreover, the original’s parkour platforming and elegant combat system haven’t aged one bit and are still some of the most enticing interactive mechanics in the action-adventure genre. But make no mistake, “Assassin’s Creed II” few artistic merits can never hide that the sequel still is a hollow, generic, procedurally generated, author-less piece of game design. Alas, the People rejoiceth, for the Proxy has listened.   read

10:15 AM on 03.16.2010

From Russia with Cold, a "Cryostasis" Review

As western game development grows thick in its arrogance and nigh religious faith in the formulaic, and the far eastern dwindles in its inability to appeal to the new found world masses in any way but the mimicking of the western ways, only those left in the middle can still make a stand. Russia and other eastern countries’ economical limbo has given rise to a number of small independent studios that the far reaching arm of the industry still hasn’t a complete clutch over. This small harbor of creative freedom is showing signs of being able to protagonize a cold wave of video games, as interesting titles such as “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” and “Metro 2033″ creep in the commercial mainstream, and the bizarre ventures of Ice-Pick Lodge, “Pathologic” and “The Void”, show that an auteur approach is still possible in the medium. “Cryostasis” lies somewhere in between these two approaches, but despite its compromise, is unequivocally another eastern promise.

Something in these eastern countries… something about the weather there has a powerful effect on the region’s cultural legacy. Something which explains that fatalist tendency for the dark and violent, that weighty existentialist anxiety, the ever-present gloom and cold and frigid, the icy and slow, the rugged and gauntly. This artistic propension is ever clear in “Cryostasis”. As an explorer stuck in an abandoned nuclear ice-breaker somewhere in the northern pole, you set out in search of answers about the ship’s predicament. You dive into that icy purgatory’s bowels, as you slowly pave way through a labyrinth of dark, rusted metal corridors, covered in crisp ice crystals and snow and clear stalactites, overrun by a dreaded silence that is only muffled by the cruel howls of the blizzard that runs amok in the white-clad exterior. “Cryostasis” is precisely about how humans can survive in face of harsh environments, posing its key themes not only through the core exploration of the ship, but also through narrative exposition, via a re-telling of Maxim Gorky’s tale “Old Izergil” and re-living of the ship’s defunct crew memories, in a series of bizarre flashbacks. Revelations are slow to come, but subtle and profound, and the authors’ propension for the extraordinary and the strange and cryptic make the game altogether more captivating for those who like a good narrative conundrum.

There’s a bit of the old survival horror cannon here as well, as the ice-breaker holds some of its former crew hidden and mutated into ghastly creatures. Though far from being the game’s highlight, combat with these monsters is particularly intense, thanks to a great use of sound effects, and the game’s unrelentingly slow rhythm. In the end, this is what makes “Cryostasis” a valid entry into its genre, as despite its first person perspective and shooting interactions, its pacing and exploratory moods utterly distantiate it from the military action aesthetic which pervasively corrodes the survival horror genre. Indeed, “Cryostasis” only failure lies in its authors not recognizing that they should not compete with the likes of these games. In what seems to have been an urge to stick to standard mainstream games’ length, the experience ends up sprawling for far too many hours, with little variation in both aesthetic content and narrative development. But, even so, after a depressing number of these nautious action-horror hybrids, such as “Dead Space“, “Resident Evil 5” and “Silent Hill Homecoming“, it is great to, once again, be able to experience a true survival horror game that lives and breathes atmosphere.   read

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