Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Series of Cubes: Portal's Ancestors, Spiritual Successors, Bastard Children

I downloaded Three Sprockets’ Cubemen the other day, and I’d be lying if I said it was anything but its aesthetic that drew me in. That’s surprising, because I’ve played my fair share of tower defense games and at this point I’m a bit bored with them, looks and all—there’s a limit to the surface-level makeovers developers might use to prop up its sagging appeal (Dungeon Defenders notwithstanding). But hey, Cubemen is different, they said: your “towers” have arms and legs, little cubey heads, agency, (family, friends?) and they’ll soldier around the map for you, shifting all sorts of dynamics and things.

But all that fell flat, and honestly it was "the look” that opened my wallet. In that Cubemen revealed my embarrassing, enduring affection for the clean lighting and crisp geometry that can of course be traced to a single source: Portal.

... Which can be traced back to the simplicity and symbolism of the games of yore, classics like Marble Madness

Now, some rambling: back in the proverbial "day," games made the best of their technical constraints by conveying complex ideas with idealized shapes. Marble Madness married a very basic visual geometry with a clever imitation of 3D movement, and voila -- a "physics-based" game emerges years ahead of its time, and it just feels so right. Because I looks so right for how it feels. Am I making sense?

The visuals are powerfully and directly symbolic; they're just stand-ins for the more expressive systems that make up the real meat of the game, namely friction, gravity, inertia. To convey phenomena like that convincingly (without the benefit of modern physics engines) the game needed to streamline its visual presentation to underscore, to somehow make more real-feeling the central system. Form empowers function.

Like I said, that streamlining was partly out of necessity. As technology progressed that approach became less necessary -- complex systems could be presented and understood without enthralling the entirety of the game's aesthetic.

So, modern games that mirror that blunt geometry can have entirely different motivations for doing so. They (generally) don't need to simplify things for us -- they just like how it looks; it gives them that retro flair, right? No, it feels wrong, because while the retro-blocky look might warm our dorky hearts, too often that look doesn't fit with the actual mechanics of the game; it doesn't flesh out, highlight, strengthen the systems.

But, aha! Portal! Here comes a concept we're utterly unfamiliar with -- player-placed rips in space. The game has to teach us how to get along with its unprecedented physics. We need to think with Portals. To encourage understanding, Valve presents an ideal Euclidean space that highlights angles, distances, depths -- the currency we deal in as we earn our escape. The space is ideal for the learning curve it establishes while boasting that comforting simplicity of Marble Madness-era gaming as a bonus, not as an developmental jumping-off point. And hey, it also feels a little sterile, but wouldn't you know it, that sets up the player-as-lab-rat positioning, which sets up the fatalistic humor, which charms the player into investing more in the story, which encourages further play... and on and on and on. Portal was so unbelievably wonderful because it all held together so perfectly; its aesthetic, mechanical, and thematic approaches came together in perfect harmony, and that siren song coaxed our bills from our wallets and our hearts from our chests. In a good way.

Where do Portal's imitators go wrong, then? Well, they co-opt Portal's optimized presentation without providing a good reason for doing so. Cubemen tried appealing to that visual simplicity, but because we're all so familiar with Tower Defense mechanics, it made no sense at all -- even the 3D view felt superfluous.

Same goes for Q.U.B.E. -- why are we solving these puzzles from the first person? A lot of the challenges involve standing over puzzles that play out on the floor, negating 3D's importance entirely. Why is the "facility" (I wouldn't be calling it that if I wasn't thinking in Portal's terms) falling apart, and why is it presented as a sterile test environment at all? The puzzles don't necessitate that simplified space, because the concepts would be easy enough to grasp in a more complex context. There's no narrative justification either -- you really do just want Portal's run-off, then?

Lest we think I'm being a little hard on the indies -- sometimes they appeal to the retro look because its cheaper, and that's fine -- lets look at English Country Tune. Talk about complex concepts -- ever-shifting gravitation, long-distance magnetism, poking little holes in things and flipping the things around to poke the right holes in the right places... This is seriously mind-bending stuff. It's rare for gamers who have grown up having their spatial intelligence tested and perfected, but for once we need all the help we can get -- hence, the space is simplified, optimized for understanding. Not only that, the neon colors and the bizarre, abrasive soundscape underscore the discomfort of sheer, open-mouthed befuddlement. Harmony! A screetchy, maddening tritone, but a harmony nonetheless.

Suffice it to say, a game's "look" should somehow serve its systems -- not just the narrative, not just the tone, not just the marketing. The systems, the mechanics, the gameplay should be directly affected or Made Better by The Look. Anything else feels cheap.

Possible Exception: Cthulhu Saves the World. I know its just catering to my basest gamer instincts but damn that shit is delightful.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Uncanny Valley Be Damned

Quantic Dream's "Project Kara" has me all aflutter. The video (below) is more technical showcase than artist's statement, but it has nevertheless thrown me headlong into the games-are-so-art frame of mind that tends to exclude me from civil conversation. Giddy -- that's what I am.

And it's not that they're breaking new ground for interactive play, making a statement with player positioning or any of that -- they're just showing us what we're physically capable of with the tools we already have. With those tools they've injected more humanity into seven minutes of real-time game footage than I thought was possible, and its just bursting at the seams with pathos. Here, just watch it: 

And here's the gist of what David Cage and Co. hope to accomplish with their focus (technical and thematic) on emotional expression:

It's an interesting problem that games face as an audience that grew up with them slowly outgrows them, the medium often seemingly trapped in an infinite teen twilight of guns and fast cars, and one that Cage hopes to be able to solve.

"Being older, when I ask people around me what games they play they say they don't play them anymore," Cage says. "They still watch TV, they still go to the movies - and the fact that they don't play games anymore isn't because they don't have time, it's because there are no games for them any more."

I desperately hope that the final product will be as pure as their intentions. Considering the mixed reviews and ambiguous classification (Cage admitted himself that it was more of an interactive movie than a game) of their last project, Heavy Rain, I can't say I harbor too much hope of Quantic's next project bridging the formidable gap between simulation (interactive media) and representational narrative, pristine as that representation appears here.

At the very least, I'll take Cage at his word: if Quantic Dream can make a game that drives my dad -- the man who introduced me to Doom, Warcraft 2 and Myst in lazier days -- back to video games of his own volition, I'll be happy and hopeful enough.

- Walt

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Japan is an Island

I was only just introduced to Mr. Murakami late last year (Wind Up Bird Chronicle was excellent, and I'm still working on 1Q84 -- also great) and a few weeks back I caught the film adaptation of his 2004 publication Norwegian Wood. Needless to say I liked it very much, caught as I am in a bit of a Japan-craze. That might sound trite, even shallow (I know too little about the culture to claim proactive fascination with it), but for months now I've craved that singular blend of frankness, humility and whimsy that seems, to my uninitiated mind, native to Japanese fiction.

As a kid I was always fascinated by anime. I still am, but I don't spend as much time at the action end of things, anymore. Don't get me wrong, I still love Bebop as much as the next guy, and Yu Yu Hakusho is fucking sweet. Even so -- call it senioritis-induced ennui, but I've been getting much more satisfaction from the more pensive stuff lately.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was exceedingly cerebral and focused on the ethical questions/philosophical mindscrambles inherent to its robots-are-people-too premise, rather than invisible topless boxing -- which has its own merits, of course. In the same vein, Metropolis (no, not that Metropolis) explored similar paradoxes, but presented them in a vibrant gift-wrap of candied animation and cartoony characters. Charming, and poignant too.

Just as charming and an addition to the list of anime I should have seen already is Tekkonkinkreet. It's from the studio that put out the Animatrix, which I was only slightly ashamed to admit that I loved.  Tekkonkinkreet  is by turns beautiful, disturbing, touching and harrowing. Two orphaned brothers struggle to survive in "Treasure Town," a slum put up for redevelopment by an alliance of merciless yakuza and smoothing-talking... aliens. It's weird and wonderful, and worth a viewing for its visuals alone.

Last Life In The Universe
Last Life in the Universe
Pictured is Last Life in the Universe, which is not exactly Japanese. More exactly, it's Thai, but the male lead is played by Tadanobu Asano, who is Japanese and also a very big deal. Asano paints a fantastic portrait of desperation and sympathy in Kenji, the film's suicidal protagonist, and the plot is just edgy enough to allow for the tender moments that come later. Think Eternal Sunshine with little less abstraction and a little more homicide. Highly recommended.

I have also managed to get my "shit" sufficiently together as to apply more of Akira Kurosawa's film to my eyeballs. Now, this one I know I'm really and truly behind on, so I'll just say that High and Low is one of the most emotionally potent detective stories I've encountered, and leave it at that.

I really do feel behind on the old film front, but I'm working to remedy that -- expect more belated commentary on movies you've seen a thousand times (next time -- dystopia!) and percolate your over-flowing wisdom through the comments section!

- Walt

Bonus: this post's title is also nice music
Edit: Just realized that Shinichiro Watanabe directed both Cowboy Bebop and "Kid's Story," my favorite Animatrix short. Also, he's teaming up with Yoko Kanno (again) to put together a new series.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

From the Archives: Gears of War 3

This review was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound's student newpaper--my work for the Trail can be found here.

Gears of War 3
Make no mistake, EPIC Games’ conclusion to the hugely popular Gears of War trilogy plays magnificently well, in the same way that Cheetos taste great and Facebook birthday wishes make one feel loved—good, but in a hollow sort of way.

And Gears of War 3 really is good: EPIC games has preserved the golden formula of cover-based combat that (according to USA Today) sold 13 million copies of the first two installments combined and inspired over 1.3 million pre-order sales of Gears 3 before it was released on Tuesday, Sept. 24.

In fact, I might as well call it “high octane,” “action-packed” and a “rip-rollicking rollercoaster,” because Gears seems as obsessed with cliché as it is with gore—more on that later.

Players reunite with the ever-angry John Travolta lookalike and soul patch poster child Marcus Fenix, as before accompanied by his boulder-biceped brothers (and sisters, new to Gears 3) in their ongoing campaign to defend humanity from the cave-dwelling Locust and their irradiated counterparts, the Lambent. The war is brutal and unpredictable, making for involved firefights of give-and-take strategy, breakneck races, and monstrous boss battles.

But a discussion of what Gears gets right is a little redundant, because what makes Gears great is what made it great in 2006—the exhilarating, balanced multiplayer, for example. Worth discussing is what happened in the interim to cheapen the experience, because in spite of itself, Gears 3 disappoints.

The story has an Avatar brand of shallowness to it: visually stunning, technically impressive and extravagantly dramatic as it is, one often feels that Gears is merely going through the motions, that plotlines were solely intended to escort players from one bloody skirmish (wow, so much blood) to the next.

Granted, a thin plot is forgivable in a point-and-shoot game like Gears—or at least it might have been, had EPIC not felt so satisfied with the success of the franchise that they over-indulged in sappy cutscenes, endless inside jokes from earlier episodes, and strained, over-the-top dialogue to make even the most camp-hardened action junkie wince.

Really though, the dialogue is very, very bad: “I’m not much of a conversationalist,” Marcus admits early on, and we’ll just stop him there. The Gears rattle off clichés as enthusiastically as they apply their chainsaws to mutant ribcages, with results just as gruesome.

These goofy one-liners take the edge off the action, changing Gears from the dystopian Saving Private Ryan it could have been into a hackneyed Rambo III, which is fine, but Gears doesn’t seem at all aware of how corny it comes across—honestly EPIC, even Duke Nukem is sort of ironic about being such a meathead.

Still, none of these complaints fully explain that bad taste in my mouth, and it might be something less material.

Gears 3 seems to be exactly what people who won’t approve of video games think all video games are: needlessly violent, absurdly macho and marketed to angsty, angry 12-year-olds.

The game’s rave reviews are troubling because they give the impression that gamers really are the kind of aggressive people they are too often painted as.

I would rather attribute its high scores (an average of 9.1 from 30 gaming websites and a ridiculous 10 out of 10 from Official Xbox Magazine) to an admiration of its technical successes or even to the decidedly shady connections between reviewers and big-time developers than to the character of the gaming masses.

To be fair, every medium has its tales of explosions and pissed off dudes with guns, so maybe I’m being too hard on Gears—it’s just that EPIC is giving ammunition to those who would have you believe that blood is all that gaming has to offer.

Polished and streamlined as it is, Gears of War 3 is still a narrow-minded shooter tailored to a demographic that I can’t say I’m sorry to have outgrown—in the game’s own trite language, I’m too old for this shit.