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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

6:09 PM on 03.12.2010

“Canabalt”, or everything that’s wrong with video games

[If you haven't played "Canabalt" yet, do yourself a favor and play it: it'll only take a few minutes to understand what I'm writing about.]

There’s a reason why I normally don’t write about indie games such as “Canabalt”. In fact, “Canabalt” may the best example of why I don’t ever do so. If you haven’t noticed, “Canabalt” has become a sort of poster-child for indie development. It was mentioned in both Destructoid and Eurogamer on game of the year lists, and attracted considerable attention from nearly all media outlets, even going as far as getting a review from über-mainstream IGN. Let’s discuss its merits. First, it is obviously an exercise of extremely elegant game-design – the only interaction with the game is through the one button that makes you jump. Like Ulrich’s character in Metallica’s cinephile music-video “I Disappear“, your character is trapped in some random metropolis skyscraper, trying to escape the impeding doom of collapsing buildings. So, he’s continuously on the move, running game style, forcing you to time your jumps in order to go from rooftop to rooftop, while avoiding incoming obstacles and pitfalls. The desolate world that surrounds you, painted in a mono-chromatic palette, is always crumbling, victim to some unknown Wellsian menace, as ships and tripod-like machines pass by in the game’s backgrounds. And so, your character is always running and running and running, as the soundtrack’s electronic beats keep pushing the tempo higher and higher, running and running and running for his life, ever faster, ever quicker, and ever more dangerously, as obstacles keep hurling through the air just to bar your path. Once you die, you just start again, playing the pattern memorization game to push further in your harrowing escape, and then die again, repeating this cycle for all eternity: there’s no end to the game, you just receive a better score for staying alive for more time. “Canabalt’s” simplicity is its stroke of genius: an accessible game, with minimalist interaction and aesthetic – one button, one objective, one color, one music – all playing in unison to make for a superlative entertaining, addicting experience. Its authors deserve all the credit they can get, for doing so much with so little.

OK, by now I have surely got you wondering, if “Canabalt” is that good, what’s with the article’s title? Why would anyone deem “Canabalt” a symbol for everything that’s wrong with video games? The reason is simple, “Canabalt” is incredibly fun, but… that’s it. There’s no point to it, no message, no aesthetic experience, no nothing. It’s as innocuous as most video games. This isn’t bad per se, it’s a wonderful game in its almost offensive superficiality, but that’s precisely because we’ve become acquainted and appeased by video games’ lack of anything beyond their pleasurable, shallow exteriors. It’s remarkable, and I’d think almost insulting to creators out there, that big company design logos can be so easily replicated with such simplicity and scarcity of means. You see, “Canabalt” isn’t really indie. As much as it is designed by independent developers, its game design philosophy is nothing but a thin, slimmed down version of mainstream video games’. This is why it so easily resonated with the mainstream – it’s language was immediately understood by both journalists and players, and its elegance garnered it praise for still being able to achieve that which all games are measured by: fun. This should get people who love video games thinking… and thinking really hard, for if something as naked as “Canabalt” can relate to people in as a powerful way as big budget titles… then what are big publishers spending their millions on? What is the point of throwing all those dollars into creating complex three-dimensional engines in service of bland aesthetics, over-long scenarios for botched narratives and super complicated game designs… if it can all be reduced to such an elegant little video game?   read

4:59 AM on 03.12.2010

Gimmick Hill, a "Silent Hill: Shattered Memories" review

If “Homecoming” was a desperate attempt at winning over the “Resident Evil” crowd, “Shattered Memories” at first, seems the logic step backwards: try to win back “Silent Hill” adepts. Climax did choose to re-imagine the first “Silent Hill” in a clear sign of reverence for the past of the series. They also appealed to a the adventure crowd by removing combat from the game, and focusing it on exploration, and by shifting core narrative themes from the dreary occult to the realm of the human psyche. Climax knew what every “Silent Hill” fan desired – a mature storyline in a survival horror focused on ambiance – and aimed at pleasing. But, whilst the marketing angle was perfect, everything else was not. But blame what we will, and we will blame many things, let us assure you, it’s undeniable that their purpose seems well-intentioned, perhaps even moved by a genuine love for the original Team Silent creations. Nonetheless, in the cruel world of the arts, such good intentions do not a work make… let alone a good “Silent Hill”. Back in the now distant days of “0rigins” you could already perceive Climax’s limitations. Their simple-minded and to the point interpretation of narrative ambiguities, surreal aesthetics and symbolic undertones, their utter lack of creative spark in the visual art department and their greatest sin: the inability to understand that “Silent Hill” had always been an authorial work inconceivable of franchise treatment. These claustrophobic maladies of the heart are now increased tenfold by greater authorial control of the Climax team, now seemingly liberated of any weight the Konami staff ensured during the transition period from east to west… and hell is it painful to watch the end-result.

In “Shattered Memories”, the series is, using popular video game journalism terminology, re-booted, which means that no “Silent Hill” cannon is reprised. Now, even “Homecoming”, and may god punish us for speaking on a positive tone of such an ill-begotten bastard, had an occasional semblance of a “Silent Hill” atmosphere, with its dreary fog and eerie vacant streets and hellish red-rusted otherworld. But despite this being a remake, Climax thought, in a momentary lapse of arrogant folly, that they were capable of coming up with something fresh to replace what defined its predecessors. One look at the early artwork of the game was enough to understand how unprepared Climax was for this task. And so, they came up with a new aesthetic theme to “Silent Hill” – a blizzard stricken town, rendered in dark blacks (it’s dark and scary), vibrant blue ice (apparently it’s the colour of ice in Brittain) and covered in a whitish snow blanket (well, snow is white). The resulting artistic direction is bland, lacking character, detail and meaning, so woefully uninspired and understated in a video game that used to be known precisely for its emotional impact.

And what could Climax possibly add to compensate for such an outrageous aesthetic? In a nutshell, a modern, gimmick oriented style of gameplay. There are the mini-game-like puzzles with that familiar shallowness that the Wii has accustomed us to, a labirynth-like running game to replace combat that feels like a stripped down, trial and error version of “Clock Tower”, and a useless “GTA IV” cell-phone that delivers back-story in SMS or voice-chat format – it’s the twitter angle on narrative. Now, all these could be sufferable, had the aesthetic any flash of creativity that would allow for the surreal ambiance to shine. But there’s not. Even the plot, while decent and interesting, has its delivery falling flat. Characters and events from the original “Silent Hill” have lost all the details that made them unique, reduced, as is common in game-to-film adaptations, to mere names and archetypes in a sprawled out synopsis that bears no relationship with the source material. Gone are the surreal elements, the bizarrerie, the allegoric and metaphoric… In the end, nothing is left that could possibly stick out in your memory – a character, a dialogue line, an image, a sound (even Yamaoka seems unusually melodic and uncharacteristic), a place, an object, an ambiance… an idea. “Shattered Memories”, like its environments, feels vacant and soul-less, an empty puppet stand-in lying in the place of a once great masterpiece.   read

6:30 AM on 03.11.2010

Ancient Lore, a "Dragon Age: Origins" review

Seldom have we felt such dismay and sheer disappointment when presented with a new Bioware title. Theirs is surely not the most consistent of libraries, but it would be a disservice not to recognize their continuous establishment of new standards in the western role-playing genre. But “Dragon Age” seems to be a mere compendium of all that has been done before under the Bioware banner, with every element screaming of unfathomable familiarity, just now stripped of its time-bound ingenuity that granted its past appeal. This makes “Dragon Age” feel, from the very early moments, awkwardly dated. Such matter is all too evident in the tactical combat system – a hark back to the old days of over-complicated micro-management and hard-plodding of “Baldur Gate’s” “Dungeons & Dragons” skeleton, with but a scent of modern game design in the form of a poorly implemented “Final Fantasy XII“-esque gambit system. This spirit of sodded revivalism goes to the point of overlooking simple technical evolutions, with a return to pre-”Mass Effect” dialog trees and generic character designs and animations. Such musings may not ruin the experience, and could even content players who still revere those massive tomes of rules and numbers and written lore that defined pre-computer role-playing, but their nature is ill-fit for the realm of the video game, where the experience of adventuring and storytelling can be made so much more elegant and dynamic, not to mention more intuitive and natural to the senses, with real time interactions and cinematic exposition.

Granted, such glaring faults could’ve been easily downplayed, as others have in the past, should the narrative background prove captivating enough to warrant involvement of players in that world. But Ferelden, the realm where action takes place, is probably the most derivative piece of pseudo-Tolkien fantasy since “Neverwinter Nights”, more even, one visibly corrupted by Peter Jackson’s film adaptation and a hedious, absurdly violent, comic-book dark-fantasy aesthetic. And one cannot even immerse in such a poor virtual world properly, because exploration feels confined by claustrophobic loading screens and over-world maps, robbing the space of that precious sense of physical presence and vast, unshackled exploration that recent RPG’s such as “Fallout 3” and “Mass Effect” reveled in. But most telling of all coming from Bioware, is the lack of a proper cast of characters (with minor exceptions) and a mere skimming of Drew Karpyshyn’s traditional themes of morality. This, and the fact that development was helmed by what appears to be a secondary team inside the studio (Brent Knowles, Mike Laidlaw and James Ohlen), makes it painfully clear that “Dragon Age” never was meant to be one of Bioware’s finest, but a mere back-step in their long run of role-plays.   read

4:51 AM on 03.10.2010

Brooding Emotions, a Heavy Rain review

Tempestuous weather, “Heavy Rain’s” leitmotif, serves not only as the perfect mood setter for the crime novel Cage is telling, but also as a fitting metaphor for how his game was envisioned and created: a whirling storm of conflicts and clashing ambitions. Remember “Fahrenheit“? Well, “Heavy Rain” is not all that different from its messy predecessor: they share similar narrative themes, plot scenes and even structural skeleton. The only new element lies in the contextual button presses, which metaphorically relate player’s input with character’s on-screen actions, in essence making your physical and psychological interactions with the game as similar as possible with character’s own experiences. David Cage intended to suck players in as far as possible into the diegetic realm of his story, and this clever (if somewhat limited) device, fulfills its function beautifully, going well beyond the gimmicky nature it could acquire in the hands of a less devoted autheur.

However, one must question what is this that Cage is trying us to relate to? A gamey blockbuster-like sci-fi epic, as “Fahrenheit”? The answer is, rather surprisingly, no. Somehow he actually learned his lesson and understood that the fabric of good narratives does not lie in fantastical plots or teenager power fantasies or heart-pumping action chases, but in the subtle characterizations of human beings: their feelings and livelihoods and emotions and thoughts and, well, in one word, life. This is “Heavy Rain’s” finest, this simple realization, so absent in the video game medium, that all media is about people, just… people. The initial scenes are perfect in this sense, presenting some of the finest non-ludic segments in the history of video games, as you play out the simple joys of life: watching the subtle facial expressions of your face in the mirror while you shave, noticing your body relaxing as you take a hot shower, gently sipping the morning coffee as you see your neighbors passing through the window, or simply standing in your backyard, beneath a tree’s shade, on a bright sunny morning, doing nothing as you wait for your dear family to return home. These are subjects which so many games avoid like the plague – because they are not action-packed or ‘fun’ or cool – and yet “Heavy Rain” addresses them whole heartedly, with a naive ingenuity that reminds us of silent film.

This is not to say that “Heavy Rain” is the perfect accomplishment of a dramatic video game. As the story develops, with the stormy weather ever-looming and you enter the dark, brooding, decrepit halls of the neo-noir, all the fissures that interactive narratives live by crack open. Sadly, even the emotional bonding scenes eventually pave way for the menial tasks of unfolding conflict according to game design cannon, with an over-indulgence in Q.T.E.-ladden action sequences, even in cases where there are known game-play templates that would fit these better. And Cage’s ever-recurring lack of aesthetic sensibility occasionally shows its true face, as he blindly cites the oddest things – C.S.I., Johnny Mnemonic, Minority Report, etc. – and in doing so severely breaks the game’s moody Fincher-esque atmosphere… Yet somehow, none of this really matters, for these are mere trifles which in other cases we wouldn’t even notice, but in a work so ambitious and bold and provoking we can’t help but lament, such is its ideal. But what you will fondly remember is that rare genuine character expression you’d never seen in a video-game, your own real smile as you joyfully play with children, the panic you’ll feel when you play the father who loses his own son, or the empathy towards the sad lives of some of the more miserable characters. Genuine glimpses of emotion: what game does that to you?

Cage is aware of why video games are bad and emotionally shallow and redundant. He knows film is not. And so, he tries to use cinema as inspiration… we would argue it is not the best of ways to get there, but Cage doesn’t seem to mind that at all. Let’s be frontal, he’s the only mainstream designer that is, at least, trying to go in the right direction, perhaps for all the wrong reasons and in all the wrong ways, but he’s trying. And though he pushes and pushes, absurdly, with such folly and impetuousness, you can’t help but sympathize and even admire his foolishness. So the origami killer asks: “How far would you go to save someone you love?”. Well, one thing is for sure, Cage is willing to sacrifice everything to save video games as a form of mature media, so maybe we should lend him an ear and listen to what he’s trying to say.   read

4:39 AM on 03.10.2010

Art vs Games…????

Last month, there was this heavy clash of discord on the internet surrounding Jim Sterling’s truculent hubris on artsy indepent games. As someone who appreciates indie ventures such as “The Path”, my immediate reaction was as brash as Jim’s. But at the end of the day it got me thinking: why this binary, fundamentalist, with or against us logic behind all these columns and reactions? Has game logic – win or lose, true or false, 1 or 0 – reached game studies, journalism and criticism? Look at the big picture: is it not possible, considering that one single truth which we can all agree with – that video games are a rich new form of media – that we can have different conceptions of what a creative, captivating and entertaining video game is? Is it that hard for everyone to accept that we can love or hate both “The Path” and “Half Life 2″, and all those little things that go in the middle, all for very different reasons? Gosh, have we really entered a battlefield of uncompromising faiths, where no one accepts different views, and everyone dismisses what the other side is saying? Think about it, it would be like watching movie critics debating on whether true film expression is limited to Stanley Kubrick or George Lucas. Either one or the other. No compromise: only one of them can be deemed film, only one is worth of merit, whoever says otherwise is a biggot. Come on, aren’t they both compatible, interesting, and their merits subjective and debatable? Why shun a whole different outlet for expression, on the basis of one’s own personal taste? Why confine ourselves to claustrophobic definitions of what is a good video game? Why is fun everything, or nothing, for these two conflicting sides? Why are pure games the only accepted expression for some, and pure artistic ventures for the others?

I want a medium where “The Void” gets as much praise as “Bioshock”, where I can play “God of War” followed by “ICO” and love both experiences, where Jim Sterling and Jaffe can understand that fun might be enough for them, but isn’t for others, and where we can all debate these issues in a rational, non-confrontational, calm debate. Is that too much to ask?   read

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