December 25, 2007

Portal

Ah, 2007! What a great year for gaming, as long as you define "great" as a slew of over-hyped titles that mostly turned out above average. What a great year for gaming! I wouldn't call it a great year for Hit Self-Destruct. I should have told you upfront that I have the gene for unpopularity. Hit Self-Destruct 2008 will be better. It almost has to be. If it's not I will cry.


Personally, I think "Game of the Year" is a dumb tradition, especially since it's been co-opted by console partisanship and "moneyhats lol." Nonetheless I am compelled to perpetuate it. Pretty much because otherwise I wouldn't have a post. With that preamble out of the way, I'm ready to announce my game of the year pick. If you want a hint, check the title of this post.

Here's something I find interesting about Portal (omg it's Portal!!) I believe it has legitimised comedy writing in the gaming mainstream. I don't mean that it's the first "legitimate" comedy game. It's less of a compliment to Portal than it is an insult to the gaming mainstream, really, or the mainstream in general. The quality of Portal's script has been widely acknowledged in a way that comedy typically is not. While such games are usually praised for being funny (although there's really a ton of allegedly "funny" games which are just terrible,) that's often seen as a separate achievement from "good writing" or a "good story." Sam & Max may make you laugh but if you want good writing you really must turn to Final Fantasy or Xenogears. Monkey Island may be funny but it doesn't hold a candle to the high drama of King's Quest (or to give a less unfair example, Gabriel Knight.) It's a collection of gags strung together and unless it blows your mind or is a gritty thriller it's not good writing. Somehow comedy is lesser. It doesn't require pacing, subtext or structure. All you need to make a good comedy game is the Three Stooges, stoned, in the writing room. Somehow Portal escapes this perception.

And why shouldn't it? Portal has probably the best conceived and executed script in any 2007 game, and it's a game predicated entirely on a simple gameplay mechanic.

It's tight. No extraneous side quests, items or characters. The advantage of the game's short length is that everything you see is absolutely critical. It ties into the Half-Life mythos, of course, but I don't believe that this cheapens the self-contained story. When GLaDOS warns you about what's "out there", yes, it's an oblique reference to Half-Life, but it doesn't even need to be. It doesn't rely on knowledge of the Half-Life canon: it introduces the chilling point that perhaps things will only get harder for Chell after escaping Aperture Science. The future is uncertain -- which is right in line with Portal thematically: Chell introduces free will into the equation by abandoning the pre-determination of GLaDOS and the test chambers and instead embraces the (much more dangerous) unknown. A woman chooses.

Portal must be the perfect narrative realisation of the Half-Life design aesthetic. It's trite, but it's not the story so much as how it's told. Portal succeeds on both pacing and dialogue (the latter largely Erik Wolpaw's contribution.) The advantage of this design is it never has to pretend you can trust GLaDOS, thereby setting you up for the obvious twist. The player is never in contradiction with the game, and can't proclaim they're any smarter because they "saw it coming." And it's still not wholly surprising, moments like the help messages scrawled in blood and the incinerator room come as welcome surprises.

(What is that guy doing in the game?! Get out!!!)

Everything the player learns is what they could realistically learn in that context. "Self-contained" doesn't mean you learn everything, which indeed you do not. There's plenty of room for speculation about how Chell reached Aperture in the first place, some of it supported by in-game hints and this website. And you need to infer backstory from some of GLaDOS's comments -- she isn't teasing you with forbidden backstory for the most part -- everything presented in the game is believable as to what she might actually say. Nowhere does the game become some obnoxious, tacked-on J.J. Abrams clue-hunt, for which I am enormously thankful.

At the core of the story, I think, is the relationship between the two antagonists, GLaDOs and Chell. It's a perfectly balanced juxtaposition. GLaDOS is all talk and Chell is all action. In the face of GLaDOS's innumerable monologues, Chell never utters a word, and GLaDOS is largely immobile and, to a degree, helpless. One is mind and one is body. I feel Valve have been more successful in creating a real character in Chell than they have been in Gordon Freeman (not that they were exactly trying with either.) In a way, they're the exact same person (me/you.) They're both essentially devices, and Chell even more so, as she's just enabling you to use this very exciting portal gun. And yet Chell represents more than that. She is such an integral part of the story, it'd be thrown into disharmony without her. And she has no dialogue. Even in this game, almost a soliloquy, there are still other techniques at work to create this character. I believe I began with that very point. Even Portal is more than the one-liners. From start-to-finish it's a smart, fully-realised story that knows exactly what it is doing. More so than BioShock. Sorry, I had to get that in there.

Did I really post this on Christmas Day? Consider it my Christmas gift to you. Just kidding, I would never be that heartless. Your dirt bike is in the back yard.

December 21, 2007

Recurring Dreams

Remember when all I used to do on this blog was analyse one game at a time? No, I don't either. Perhaps this post is ill-advised, then, since I'm covering three games in one shot, and all of them are deserving of far more than the time and space they're getting here. And all three are great games which don't deserve to have their endings spoiled so thoroughly like I'm about to do. So, really, don't read this one if you haven't played Ico, Half-Life 2, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Not that I have to worry about people not reading my blog. Oh man. If you only knew!

There's an interesting similarity between these games. I don't mean criminally similar. I'm not trying to cause trouble here.

Let's just begin:


Half-Life 2 (2004)

Half-Life 2 ends with the player finally infiltrating that location they've been seeing and thinking about the whole time -- the Citadel. And when Gordon Freeman gets in there, the game takes a slightly odd turn. First off, this epicenter of bureaucratic evil isn't at all like a straightforward office or superbly efficient base of operations
à la Hannah Arendt. It's an oddly constructed tower, coloured in ethereal blues and blacks. And while you're in this vaguely creepy place, you don't have any of your weapons. Rather, you have the gravity gun, which has inexplicably, semi-magically been upgraded into an incredible (and overpowered) weapon. It can finally do what you always hoped -- pick up whole people and throw them around. If you're careful, this logically makes the game easier -- you're tearing more guys thanks to this supernatural monstrosity.

ICO (2001)

What? No, that Half-Life thing will pay off. But right now we're moving on.


The penultimate scene in ICO has the titular character coming back to the castle to rescue the princess Yorda. There's a group of shadows hustling around her body, and you/Ico charge and attack them. This all looks like pretty standard stuff but there's a trick to it. First off, ICO isn't an action game and you're never done this much fighting. Everything up to that point has been you spastically whacking monsters with a stick.
You don't have that stick anymore, either -- you have the most powerful weapon in the game, a magical sword that dispels the shadows in one hit. And as Ico runs around Yorda's petrified body, hitting these shadows which keep coming for an abnormally long time, something unusual happens: the soundtrack finally kicks in. ICO's score would be generously called minimalist, so this is interesting in and of itself. But the electric guitars aren't coming in; the game isn't setting up this moment where you'll, at last, get to kick some ass. Instead, you hear this sad, slow piece that doesn't make you feel good about anything at all. If anything it emphasises how tragic this game is and how what you're doing right now isn't helping. This isn't a fighting game, ICO reminds you. What it is is amazing. It's not quite the meditation on death that Shadow of the Colossus would turn out to be, but it's a great moment nonetheless.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)


This similarity you might have seen coming: Sands of Time owes a big debt to the above game in general. It's pretty much the western ICO, ironically.

This moment occurs near the end, right after Farah dies. The Prince looks up in anger at the sand monsters who are now coming to get him. What don't you want to deal with after your love dies? Sand monsters, duh. That's easy points on the SATs. That's the point of the scene, though; even though you have to take on all these creatures, it's not about fighting anymore. It's about reacting to Farah's death and the constant stress that this game put you under and how these frustrating monsters will not leave you alone ever. It's about being angry. It's about letting out your frustrations. And you can do that more easily than usual because you have the one hit-one kill sword. You don't need to consider the normal process of beating monsters to the floor then stabbing them with the dagger to stop them recovering. Hit, kill. Hit, kill. The great battle music here, also, really encourages you to let it all out.

This sequence is the least "ethereal" of the three, though I'd argue it makes up for it with the dream sequence earlier -- the one with the bath, the dripping water, and that long staircase. The music there, too, is something special. I called it the western ICO, but Sands of Time still contains so many non-Western idiosyncrasies to make it stand out.


So, what do these three have in common? Hopefully you've pieced it together. They're all the penultimate (or close to it) stage of the game, and they all have an overpowered weapon, a torrent of enemies to let loose on, and an oddly surreal quality. But it's unlikely that all three developers assembled all those superficialities independently. Each of these scenes, I believe, have a larger purpose. The game isn't "easier" because of balancing issues. The lower difficulty is a capitulation to let these climaxes be about emotion and atmosphere instead of challenge. The sequences are memorable because of that. It wasn't a moment in the game that you remember because you died a hundred times against an endless wave of enemies. It's the moment where you entered the citadel and wandered uneasily through its unusual decor while dispatching your foes with your newly acquired, almost superhuman powers. It's the moment when you tried to protect Yorda against overwhelming odds and perhaps failed. It's the moment when Farah died and you were furious.

How many times has a game built to a crescendo at the end, with a really palpable sense of drama and urgency, and then you get stuck. On some supremely difficult boss. Where you keep failing because you don't have pinpoint precision and expert timing to hit him in his one weak spot. What better way is there to kill momentum than that? These final bosses, or whatever final challenges the game throws at you, shouldn't still have to be absurdly difficult. That's the Space Invaders school of design where the game gets exponentially more difficult, with the end boss the game's greatest challenge. At least arcade games were about taking players' money. To get stuck at the very end in Shadow of the Colossus or Psychonauts or Beyond Good & Evil or Mafia or whatever, what does that do except piss players off? Instead, in these games, you're rewarded for your investment by being allowed to move at the story's pace.

This is what I like. I have no idea how these three games discovered the same formula, but I'm very glad they did.

December 15, 2007

Fall back on Fallout

(I had my first blog death scare. I panicked.)

"War," intones Ron Perlman, "war never changes." There's something we don't hear often enough. Very pithy. Really sums up the history of warfare. I guess if I could amend just one thing in that statement it would be this: war changes. Sorry, Interplay/Black Isle/Bethesda et al, you're just wrong. But don't let that stop you from opening every Fallout game ever like that.

There are three criteria you can look at throughout history by which war has demonstrably changed. These are a) the purpose of war, b) the role of civilians during wartime, and c) how war is fought vis a vis institutions and practices.

Prior to the 18th century, wars were fought by various groups and were largely chaotic (and relatively short-lived) in nature. John R. Hale called the wars in western Europe "a matter of violent housekeeping." After the 17th century, in Westphalian Europe, wars emerged as an instrument of state policy -- we now call this "institutionalised" or "traditional" war. In this period, war was an accepted, legitimate activity. Martin Luther wrote that war "[was] as necessary as eating, drinking or any other business." As Von Clausewitz put it, war was "the continuation of politics by any other means."

The purposes of war in this period included advancing diplomatic interests, maintaining internal order, territorial defence, and, yes, Fallout, gathering resources, colonies and building empires. However, war was not waged to annihilate a state's enemies but rather to achieve certain limited goals. In these wars there was a clear distinction between combatants and civilians. Trade continued, for the most part. Noblemen even led armies. "In the ideal war," said Frederick II, "civilians would not even know about it." Civilised nations that went to war adhered to certain standards of conduct: they would not shoot at generals or messengers, war was strictly impersonal, and battle was elaborately choreographed.

This all changed (!) with Napoleon. Napoleon, like none before him, aimed to destroy the European political system, and in so doing revolutionised warfare. His wars were "wars of annihilation," and partly because Napoleon introduced mass conscription, were extremely costly in terms of lives and resources.

The Concert of Europe, a precursor to the League of Nations, was established in response to the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and survived until 1822. The great powers now saw war as a problem that needed to be regulated. They agreed that no sovereign state could go to war without the Concert's consent, and decades of relative peace followed. Here we see the "norm" of war changing -- no longer is it an essential and inherent policy tool.

This informal regulation was not enough to prevent World War I, which was unprecedented in its scale of destruction. WW1 saw the mobilisation of entire states and societies, and the opposition to this war led to the League of Nations and greater regulation of warfare. The League only permitted war in three occasions: in self-defence; to enforce League-sponsored sanctions, or after a 90-day waiting period, as if you're buying a handgun. Even this wasn't enough: the Kellogg-Briand Pact in August 1928 outlawed war altogether, and was signed by 62 nations. War had gone from an unlimited right to a last resort.

World War II is the apotheosis of what is called "total war". WW2 introduced nuclear weapons, systematic genocide (of civilians) and death camps. The Tokyo and Nuremberg trials ushered in further restrictions, as per the notion of war crimes. The United Nations was established in 1945 to save future generations from "the scourge of war," and allowed war only as an instrument of a) individual or collective self-defence, or b) enforcement of collective sanctions.

Post-WW2, new forms of warfare were born -- the "wars of a third kind" (K.J. Holsti), low-intensity conflicts, and "new wars" (Mary Kaldor.) The 'wars of a third kind', or 'extra-systemic wars' were wars of national liberation, with no front lines, no fixed bases, no uniforms, and no respect for territorial boundaries. Unpredictability and surprise were virtues. The elaboration and signifiers of institutionalised-era were gone, and the tactics that replaced them were supremely effective (i.e. Vietnam.)

War was about different things: establishing communities, rather than disputes between states. These wars were fought in and about weaker states in the developing world -- Sierra Leone and Serbia, as opposed to Germany and Japan. As in Vietnam, the warring parties were prepared to pay an "irrationally" high price for their goal.

Where "old wars" were about classical military pursuit and capture of territory, and were fought by the armies of states; thus a bi- or multi-polar conflict. Kaldor's "new wars" are networked, spilling over boundaries and disregarding sovereignty. They are fought by multiple actors, and take place in/around weak -- decentralised, fragmented -- states, which often only have the formal qualities of a state and nothing else. The warring parties are groups usually held together by extreme ideology, who claim the right to exclusive power on the basis of identity, whether ethnic or religious. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing and genocide are established "new war" strategies. Large-scale battles are rare and violence against civilians is common. Civilians are almost exclusively the victims of new wars. Hans Magnus Enzensberger argues that the new wars are about "nothing at all."

So Bethesda, if you're reading this, how about kicking Fallout 3 off with this post instead. I'm sure nobody would mind. Fallout fans are a fun-loving group, they're very loose about this sort of thing.

December 6, 2007

Breaking the fourth wall in Jade Empire

Have you noticed "Jade Empire" has the same number of letters as "Mass Effect"? And "Baldur Gate"? And... "Neverwinte"? Back to the drawing board, guys.

Fortunately this post isn't about counting letters (that's the next post.) It is about something nearly as trivial. I'm lucky that the very end of Jade Empire isn't part of the game's fiction, so I can write about it without spoiling the game.

I don't know what game ever got this right: the "funny outtakes". It's hard to get right, of course, because it's an awful idea. Over Jade Empire's ending credits, the characters Dawn Star (voiced by Kim Mai Guest) and Sky (voiced by Cam Clarke) talk about their "experiences" making the game Jade Empire. So you have the fictional character Dawn Star blathering on about working with "the writers" at the real-life company BioWare. Now, it's not that I can only read this game strictly literally. I don't understand, however, what comedic potential is being realised by "Dawn Star" acting like she's on a real-world press junket. Reminds me of those interviews with fictional characters -- who on earth is interested in these things?

Nor do I understand why BioWare is so eager to violate the verisimilitude of their story. Thank you, I guess, for not doing it in the game proper, but when you don't commit to your somber mythology, guess what, neither do I. You don't even have the decency to make it an easter egg, unless you were thinking players might not sit through your nine minute (!) credit sequence.

And I don't understand why BioWare suddenly decided to cut loose at the very end of their dour, meaningless epic, and where, after Knights of the Old Republic, their sense of humour went. Jade Empire's outtakes follow a certain comedic style in which you emulate a form (in this case, press interviews and promotion) but forget to say anything funny, so that's just the joke, that it's a secret thing you found and it's kind of like they're on Entertainment Tonight. Yeah, there's a couple of jokes in there, but it's like open-mic night and BioWare's the last one to excitedly jump on stage and launch into their horrific comedy bit and then completely die. It's embarrassing.

If you couldn't tell, this really bothered me. Probably more than it should have. It was an unpleasant end to a lacklustre game.

Here's what I do understand: I've heard people say that the part of their work that's a big joke was the most fun to write but they don't realise that they're damning themselves. Of course it's more fun, because you don't care about it. It's easier to write because you're not trying to make it any good. You shouldn't be bragging about this.

(You can watch Jade Empire's credits here if you like.)

December 5, 2007

Weird post

I think giving birth must be a bit like a boss fight. Supposedly it's a spectacular and epic event but very quickly it gets difficult and repetitive and when it's finally over there's less a sense of accomplishment and more of a frustrated relief.