July 23, 2009

A Fight To Remember

He is a sunken and bare chested young man who wears eyeshadow, styles his hair like a skunk ("skunk wave") and has a mustache tattooed on his face. His name is Ghat. This is you.

You are introduced to Ghat immediately after Zeno Clash begins. Ghat is fleeing his home city after having done something truly weird. He's killed his Father-Mother (which is what you think it is, but worse) and now he has to escape before he gets iced by a bipedal pig, dual wielding fish-mounted pistols. With his horned girlfriend in tow, Ghat is running away from the surreal and towards the even stranger things that wait outside the walls. He might think that he's running away from the circus, but he's pretty much only crossing from the freak tent to the bearded lady's caravan.

Interspersed in this sequence is a tutorial that teaches you at length how to punch and how to block, like that was the part that needed an explanation.

Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler that operates as a linear tour through arenas stacked with multiple opponents. It takes the first part of its name from its fictional setting of Zenozoik. Zenozoik is a deliberate reference to the Cenozoic era, the age of mammals: whales, sabretoothed tigers, elephants with hammers, hermaphroditic creation myths, and multi-species families decked out in metal helmets, peacock feathers and probosces. Ghat's sister wears a wicker hat and an exoskeleton blouse, his brother looks like the kind of creature that would wash up on a New Jersey beach, destined to appear on a shocking tabloid cover.

The world of Zeno Clash is like an entire game in the style of Star Wars' Mos Eisley cantina: a montage of aliens, puppets and makeup-caked actors; all completely unique designs and all quickly bypassed, never lingering upon their inherent strangeness and never venturing any backstory. To play Zeno Clash is to be exposed to condensed and casual absurdity in such a short span of time before you get to process it.

If the game ever explains its characters, it's in the succinct and thought-provoking detail of a Twilight Zone parable. One creature wants to be invisible, which he achieves by ripping out people's eyes. Another is a dome-headed hulk walking in a straight line across the world until a rock gets in his way and he dies. Those two make sense, kind of, but how about the bounty hunter who can summon an army of parachutist squirrels with kegs of dynamite strapped to their backs? Never underestimate Zeno Clash's penchant for the inexplicable. The story is fairly simple, the plot basic enough to follow, but its systems of genetics and biology are altogether something else.

The story is, more accurately, a loose framework that allows the player to witness and murder concept art. You and Ghat head out into the desert, see and hit some things and then return. Neither Ghat nor his girlfriend ever appear all that perplexed by their crazy encounters, probably because none of it is any stranger than what they grew up with. So you get that there is no real baseline for what is "normal" in Zenozoik.

Zeno Clash being an independently-developed PC game written in English by non-native English speakers -- Chilean, in this case -- and there's the occasional piece of suspect translation. It'd be shocking if there wasn't, at this point. These instances invite you to guess about how daunting Zeno Clash is really supposed to be: whether some details are simply being unfortunately lost in translation, or that it is, actually, all this weird.

Is it surrealist for surrealism's sake, or is it a fictional universe that makes perfect sense to a development team lead by three Chilean brothers? Zenozoik and its inhabitants very plausibly could have been the kind of fictional place collaboratively designed by three brothers growing up together, manifesting itself in the short stories and ballpoint-drawn comics of sixteen-year-olds before achieving public legitimacy as a downloadable video game.

Is there anything behind the Zeno Clash weirdness? Propelled through Zeno Clash's series of arenas, you can consider the possible allegorical or metaphorical implications, the artistic intentions, rationalise events as poignant or significant, and then you break some dude's nose and save the philosophy for later. Herein lies the answer.

Ghat's confused because he murdered somebody and left home, and we're confused because what the fuck is this place. How do we both work through our separate anxieties? We fight. At no point do you care less about what Zeno Clash might "mean" than when you're grabbing the nearest, sharpest stick and bringing it down upon the head of a bloodied woolly mammoth.

It's remarkable how a game like this can be so complicated and so simple at the same time. The Zeno is abstract and inscrutable, and the Clash; you've played this before. Zeno Clash would be more intimidating if the impenetrable fiction accessorized with impenetrable gameplay, i.e. if it played like something from the Myst series. Instead, this game is at once familiar and unfamiliar. The mechanics are as traditional as the fiction is alien, and ultimately you can cut through the pervasive oddities because, you will find, you speak the only language that matters.

Zeno Clash is a really conventional game in a lot of ways. The movements are simple: you lock onto enemies and circle them, clicking a button for a basic attack, holding it for a powered attack, and pressing another button to block. There are combinations of these three moves that deploy some more sophisticated techniques, and you can figure out when to time your blocks, how to break someone else's block and when to grab enemies and throw them into one another... or you could just press that basic attack button over and over again, clicking insistently as you beat your enemies into boring, effective submission.

Zeno Clash intentionally evokes the spirit of classic fighting games with sliding versus screens that announce your opponents before you do battle. It doesn't even need to do this if it wants to draw the comparison. To anyone who's played those games, Zeno Clash is immediately recognisable. The similarity is not about aesthetics, it's about feeling. Zeno Clash is like every fighting game, it has the same repertoires and taps into the same emotional responses.

Like every fighting game, Zeno Clash will, from time to time, compel in you a sense of absolute brutality. These are the moments where you really, genuinely want to beat the shit out of something. This is when you get thrown to the floor by a gargantuan boss character, and you hammer the keys to try and speed up or bypass the animation for Ghat getting back on his feet. That animation wastes so much of your time, and the other guy is still throwing punches while you're not even permitted to mouselook.

These are the moments where you're totally thrashed and reduced to the lowest fraction of your health bar, but you are fully aware that you've never got so far before. This is when you are so absolutely fixated on destroying something, and you click the mouse three times which translates into punching the guy onto his knees, uppercutting his face and kicking him in his stomach, and every contact wound is so satisfying because at that moment you have never been so close to victory.

These are the moments where you just made it, after too many times when you didn't. This is the feeling of finally beating a game's greatest challenge when you already have so little health your character should be dead. This isn't triumph, or pride, even if you think that's how you're supposed to feel. This is pure adrenaline, this is rage, that leaves you panting over a virtual corpse. It takes you that place where you are you are mentally ready to bash in the teeth of a moleman. You'd really do it. This is a feeling dissipates in a second when the next enemy pings you in the head with a crossbow, and then you repeat forever if necessary.

A lack of quicksave in a game can result in a different style of play. In Shadow of the Colossus, needing to deliver the takedown in one unbroken take turns boss fights into improvised art. You have to hit all your marks, all your steps: leaping from horses, across wings, being thrown around by the wind and clutching tightly to the surface as you're dragged underwater. Performing it is something spectacular. That's about precision, that's about grace.

Zeno Clash is another kind of desperation. The fights have no progression, no separate stages. There aren't any dance steps to learn except the first one: tear this guy apart, now. Smash this thing in the face with a mallet. Zeno Clash is messy.

The visuals are like no game before it, and the mechanics are like every game. It's a style of gameplay memorable to anyone who's played video games. The world is strange, the characters are stranger, but you know how to interact with it. And that doesn't necessarily make half of the game disappointing -- it's a balance. The familiar and the unfamiliar. You've been trained how to navigate this place.

You've been here before. You remember what it's like to see an enemy coming at you, you remember how to think, how to act, how to respond. This is you. This is the last thirty seconds of a Street Fighter match when you're down to no health. This is rapidly button-matching your way through quick-time events in God of War and coating the the controller in sweat. This is being the last person alive on your Counter-Strike team. This is the part of Shadow of the Colossus when you do bring the sword down, again and again, swinging around wildly as you clutch to a patch of fur. It doesn't matter that this time it looks weird. This is home.

Maybe it's too bad that a game with such a strong visual imagination is entirely about kicking people in the face.

But violence is your compass. You'd be lost without it.


Matthew Gallant said...

I'm really glad that you and Michael Abbott decided to take on Zeno Clash, I really enjoyed the game even if I couldn't wrap my head around it. Can a game be shallow and deep at the same time?

axcho said...

Wow. I've found this review very inspiring. I haven't played Zeno Clash yet, but maybe I should!

My favorite quote:

"The story is, more accurately, a loose framework that allows the player to witness and murder concept art."

An interesting approach to game design. It's funny how many elements there are to any one game, how each one can be strange or conventional, and how you can play with this - the tension, the contrast, the balance.

I'm used to thinking that *everything* should be innovative and original, or something like that, but you've pointed out another possibility. You've given me permission! :D Not that I'd intend to copy what Zeno Clash has done, but now I see what else is possible.

This may help, especially in working with artists who have such creative and unusual worlds in mind. The thing I want to avoid is just applying it all as window dressing in an otherwise generic platformer, like many games I see. But now I realize that it's not all or nothing. It doesn't have to be blind. I can play with it.

Thank you. :)