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.

1 comment:

Steve gaynor said...

I know what you mean. It's great when the ending of a game allows the player a slam dunk, instead of punishing you for trying to complete the game. The strongest instance of this in recent games I've played is Hitman: Blood Money, which is an incredible game, but misses the point at the very end. Don't read on if you want to avoid spoilers.

So you've been "killed" by the villain of the story, and laid on a pedestal for an ironic "funeral," a way of the villain celebrating his victory. But Diana, your contact at your employing Agency, has infiltrated the villain's organization as his assistant, and manages to slip you the revival serum and your dual .45's as a bit of an escape plan. You think, "fuck yeah!" and get pumped to mow down this bunch of assholes who would see you dead. You pounce off the slab, guns blazing.

And then you run out of ammo and die while reloading. So you load your save and try again, only to be dropped by a hail of gunfire after shooting only a few guards. So you try again, and again, then you try that trick you read online about taking the priest as a human shield but the guards just shoot him anyway and then you're left out in the open and you die again, and HOLY SHIT this was supposed to be an awesome slam dunk of an ending. But it's not. You end up having to keep quickloading and finally figure out a way to survive through trial and error. It just ruins the momentum they'd built up. Either that or I'm just terrible at the game.

In any case, they should have tuned that final scene the way Valve tuned the super grav gun, or Team Ico tuned the magical sword, or Ubi Montreal tuned the scene after Farah's death. I'm still disappointed about the ending of Hitman Blood Money, because it promised to be so cool, but of all the times I've played it, it's just never 'worked.' Ah well.