Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Analysis: Dead Space and the Enjoyment of Other People's Suffering

Rollercoaster rides are a funny phenomenon: rational, sane people who value their safety will allow themselves to be hurtled through the air at precarious speeds just for a thrill; these same people will then celebrate the terror that they put themselves in by screaming and yelling in an irrational manner. Of course, it makes sense: by putting themselves in a risk situation that is safe and controlled, rollercoaster riders are able to experience the thrill of danger without actually being exposed to it.

Horror movies aim to provide the same exhilaration as riding a rollercoaster, with the difference that a horror movie provides zero direct risk; there is no chance that the operation of a horror movie will injure or kill you. Instead, the people at risk in a horror movie are the characters in the narrative who recently had sex and are now being chased by a serial killer.

Lingering nightmares aside, horror movies can affect the viewer only so deeply when compared to a the genre of survival-horror video games where the concept is that you are in inside a horror movie. The interactive component of video games demands that, when playing a survival-horror game, the player be responsible for his own safety at all times and thus making every moment playing it a visceral, heart-pounding adventure. Survival-horror games differ from other video games from the omni-present feeling that you are never safe, even when standing still in an empty room.

The challenge in a survival horror game is to stay alive, especially with enemies seeking your bodily harm that are horrible and monstrous. In fact, the struggle to preserve one's own life in a survival-horror game is so important and thrilling that any story elements of the game are shunted to a secondary or even tertiary level (the second being the level of gore and violence to be enjoyed).

Such it is with Dead Space (2008) by EA's Redwood Studios which proves that survival-horror video games are incapable of telling a story because you are the story. You are telling it with your fight to survive against overwhelming odds. Anything else that happens is not as important as the very life you are trying to protect.

Dead Space has a well-thought out plot and background involving science-fiction technologies, religion, deception and appeals to the player emotionally by having the protagonist's love interest involved in this catastrophe and her whereabouts and safety unknown. The influences are outrageously cribbed from the same three favorite sci-fi movies everybody has seen. However, "Dead Space" has interesting characters like the doctor who accepts the extermination of humankind as a higher calling, or innovative concepts like the "planet-cracker" spaceship that can tear a planet asunder to mine for valuable resources, and interesting themes like the role religion will perform in futuristic society. Dead Space is well-planned and scripted.

However, Dead Space is not very thoughtful when you are constantly involved in putting off the purchase of the proverbial farm. A case in point are the game's cutscenes where dialogue is used to move the plot forward. Much like Half-Life (1998) the perspective never changes from the gameplay view allowing for a greater sense of immersion and different experiences on following playthroughs. While this immersion in Dead Space heighten the tension and the horror, this also has the effect of invalidating the story's importance by emphasizing the need to survive; you are never ever truly safe, even in a cutscene. A traditional "movie" cutscene would cut away from your perspective and would allow for a feeling a "safety" by taking the immersion and interactivity from you, if just for a moment. Indeed, when the player, Issac Clarke, finally meets up with Nicole Brenner, his girl-friend, you are likely more concerned with collecting the precious ammunition and health scattered about the room rather than anything she has to say.

The nature of self-preservation is a strong one, and would prompt someone in a simular situation to ask, "How can I help you when I can't even help myself?" This leads the main/emotional story arc of Dead Space out to dry in a vaccuum. This is further hampered by a protagonist who is silent and not revealing of any character or feeling. While this tactic has served to be useful in games like Dragon Quest VIII (2004), Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (2001), Half-Life and the survival-horror game play of Dead Space itself, this silence separates us from sympathizing with a character who appears emotionally detached from the proceedings of the game. Unlike these other games, Dead Space doesn't have many other characters to speak for or empathize with the main protagonist. In fact, Clarke will be both stoically silent at the game's emotional climax as well as fully masked, leaving us to guess at his thoughts and feelings from his body movement alone. The only time we are allowed to see Clarke's heart is when a zombie successfully attacks him and rips him in half.

Nonetheless, Dead Space excels at letting gamers tell their own story of survival, and here it's a good thing Clarke is silent because he just wouldn't be capable of describing the horrors and atrocities committed in this game. It appears many video games try to shock gamers and outdo other video games in their depiction of barbarity and depravity of violence, if just to paint a picture of evil without actually having be evil itself: games like Bioshock (2007), Manhunt (2004) and the Mortal Kombat series comply to this mold. Dead Space doesn't shy away from this and rejoices in the gore and violence involved.

That's what Dead Space is good at being: letting the player wallow in the same level of violent debauchery as your evil enemy. It's for the better that Clarke is silent throughout or else he would express regret and remourse for having to kill an enemy that used to be people, even people he once knew, in an extravagantly vicious and spectacular fashion. Dead Space may be the first video game to have an melee attack for stepping on and squishing your enemy with horrendous and messy results. Much like the Grand Theft Auto series, Dead Space allows the player to partake in objectable behavior not endorsed or encouraged by the game but availible to perform. While Grand Theft Auto allows for the picking up and hiring of street prostitutes, Dead Space allows for the debasement of corpses in grisly and appalling manner that is oddly satisfying. Similarly, both games have tangential benefits to both behaviors: Grand Theft Auto rewards you with a health bonus, and Dead Space lets you disable (literally) a potential enemy--both availible if you are willing to cross that moral boundary.

That would then be the most compelling reason why Dead Space can't tell a story: that Issac Clarke survived this horrific ordeal in which he was forced to commit terrible acts just for the sake of our enjoyment. What is a horrific lifechanging experience for him is simply escapist, gory fun for us. His silence on the matter never lets us know how he coped with this test of the human spirit because that would humanise him and get in the way of our fun.

Issac Clarke isn't "Doomguy" from the Doom franchise, a hard-boiled space marine trained for combat and relishes violence; neither is he Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series, a resilient scientist who is searching for the thing all scientists are searching for: truth, albeit by crawling through air ducts and fighting off military black ops personnel with a crowbar. Instead of trying to save the world, Clarke is some guy doing his day job but now just wants to rescue his girlfriend and go home.

Graphics have long been by far the most important aspect of video games. The "uncanny valley" is a concept that appears to be the most challenging for the development of computer graphics currently; the "uncanny valley" is the concept that the closer artificial characters or their likeness become to to being human-like will generate an equally large emotionally negative repsonse. Basically, the "uncanny valley" means until science finally gets it completely perfect audiences and observers will find these human-like characters as creepy and unrelatable.

However, regarding video games, this isn't the only thing that has simularily adverse results with the more progress made towards it. Likewise, video games appear to have an "unsympathetic valley", where the more something is said to explain something, the less we care.

Doom was a breakthrough first-person shooter and provided lots of fun action and scares; even though it was very shallow and didn't explain much in the way of plot or character, this simply meant that we weren't burdened with any emotional restraint that would accompany the enjoyment of murder using such satisfying weapons as a chainsaw and a shotgun. Half-Life took the devoted and well-used video game plot of an accident gone wrong and having to save the world, and freshened-up a tired cliched story by telling it well for the first time in video game history.

Almost ten years later with Dead Space it appears we are sliding backwards. Dead Space's straight-forward story of love and deception (and, revealed later, dementia) does not work with the unresolved story of survival against evil and horror. The more we hear the less we care making the experience of playing Dead Space fun but cold and empty.

"Dead Space"'s Game Pro's and Con's that can be summed up in point form


+ very specialized single-player experience crafted to scare you in innovative environments (zero G, the vaccuum of space)
+ fresh take on the well-versed zombie genre having players dismember enemies
+ a directional line to objective means never getting lost, encouraging exploration
+ takes a direct approach to gore and never backs down


- scares wear off after awhile, and most scares are fake, scripted events
- lame boss battles
- purchasable and ungradable weapons require several playthroughs to appreciate, leading to confusion on the first time around
- influences are very noticable, and isn't as innovative as it's potential
- story is predictable and forgetable, even though great pains are made to tell the story well

Played to completion on most difficult level on the Xbox 360.

Rated: two out of a possible three stars

Review: Final Fantasy XII

Everybody loves “Rocky” (1976); I mean, what’s not to like about the quintessential American dream of some white guy who able to overcome the odds and defeat the heavyweight champion of the world, a guy who is stronger, more eloquent and blacker than him. Besides this important admission to the modern lexicon of the underdog, “Rocky” is also important for its unforgettable theme by Bill Conti and establishing a cornerstone of the modern film vocabulary--the “montage”: a collection of vignettes accompanied by music to establish the passing of time and the bettering of oneself; in this case, running up the stairs of Philadelphia Museum of Art and wrestling a chicken. “Gonna fly now...”

This is important to the fundamental concept of role playing video games. Besides the idea of pretending to be somebody else for awhile and do things that they would do (a concept quite a few RPG’s in fact ignore), an RPG can offer you the satisfaction of turning a nobody who can’t do anything into a somebody who is strong, smart, and likely has the ability to cast spells. The information shown in a five minute film montage can’t compare with the satisfaction of turning your farm boy on a quest to avenge/save the kingdom/princess into a hulking, spell-casting badass over the span of some fifty hours. From fighting rats in the cellar to dragons in castles, this predicable template is what brings back gamers for more of the same. We want that satisfaction.

The Final Fantasy series has long allowed gamers to indulge in this “satisfaction illusion” with providing hundreds of hours of grinding through dungeons to level up their characters. Final Fantasy XII goes the logical next step in turn based combat and offers a system that is automatic and for the most part, hands free. Final Fantasy XII uses a “Gambit” system which is just like basic programming (ie. Step 1: heal if health under 50%; Step 2: if health over 50%, then attack enemy etc.). All that button mashing “A” to confirm your party to “attack” enemy has been eliminated by this simple and straightforward system that has you wondering why it hasn’t been used before. However, this forward leap in technology is a step backwards in old school methodology: by taking away the monotonous act of making the same combat decisions over and over again, the game also takes away the pleasure of knowing you have something (if at least artificially) to do with your character getting “stronger”.

Indeed, if the “Gambits” are programmed properly then just about no stopping of game combat is required; you just steer your merry band of murderers as they gallivant across the countryside slaughtering the poor monsters they encounter. As the player you simply direct where you want to go and everything is taken care of for you. It’s like the difference between driving a car and walking fifty miles, but more pleasurable, say like driving a car getting a highway hummer at the same time, but without the satisfaction and an overwhelming feeling of impropriety, say like getting said highway hummer from your sister. Who is dead. And had her teeth filed into fangs.

However, “Gambits” aren’t mandatory, and in fact this “hands off” approach won’t work for the entirety of the game. Boss battles require different strategies compared to normal enemies. Conversely, someone could eschew the “Gambit” system entirely and micromanage every action, constantly pausing the action to simulate the turn-based style of yesteryear. Still, what’s done is done and there’s no going back. The sharp edge of technology has pierced the patchy screen door of RPG complacency, and the automated mosquitoes of “progress” have gotten inside and are here to stay and suck the blood of the soft, rubbery skin of fun. After this watershed, a RPG that still features turn-based combat is denying inevitable change and tacitly accepting an outdated system that shouldn’t have been improved a generation ago.

This aspect of Final Fantasy XII wouldn’t have been that bad except for the fact that in this game, as in most Japanese RPG’s, the main interactive component is combat. The acquisition of experience and money, accomplishing quests and main story goals, venturing into new areas—these all require combat, and lots of it. The Final Fantasy series does offer much besides combat: the series offers amazing visuals, music, elaborate cutscenes, Byzantinely convoluted plotlines, androgynous characters—more than enough to appeal to any sexually confused gamer. But this is a videogame, something you interact with, and having the main interaction with it on “autopilot” takes away part of the reason we’re playing it in the first place. If something is turn-based, then it doesn’t make any sense to artificially remove the “turns”.

These two contrasting modes of combat – turn-based and “automatic” - aren’t inherently flawed. While my criticism of Final Fantasy XII and early Final Fantasies sound like abject dismissal of their combat, in actuality both of them can work out to be quite fun if they were used in the right context. Fallout had an amazing, rich turn-based combat system that featured deep game play strategies. If you were going to take turns in combat, well, make sure every move counted. Likewise, an automatic battle system could be fun in a game if you had other things required of you to do, say solve puzzles. It’s a game; let me play it.

So, I was having my weekly video game think-tank session with JazzOleg where we try to solve the world’s problems by talking about video games we like and don’t like. I mentioned this review for Final Fantasy XII and also my main complaint that it takes the fun and satisfaction when the game basically “plays itself”. Upon hearing this Oleg put down his pipe, got up from the rocking chair and went out to the veranda that overlooks the valley that leads down to the lake and the boat house. He stood there for some time, watching the sun set as the temperature fell. In time he re-entered quietly and poured himself yet another brandy. Swilling it, he said at last, “While I hold your position, Msgr. Lasttoblame, to be one of logic and honor, I will inform you that the great satisfaction I obtain from playing Final Fantasy and other RPG’s is by outfitting my characters with the best armor and weapons and upgrading them as I see fit.” He then stood there silently, biting his lip, until he lifted his glass and downed the brandy in one swill. Oleg then did a line of coke the length of my arm and jumped out the window. When I peered through the broken glass I saw that Oleg had picked himself up and was running away, yelling “Video games can make a grown man cry!” and “It’s all about the story!” over and over again.

Wise words, even if I don’t agree with them. Gamers can play a video game whichever style fits them: cautiously, brashly, methodically, carelessly. Whichever style it is it doesn’t matter as the fun they derive from said game. If there are gamers like Oleg who enjoy looking over a menu tab again and again to agonizingly choose a +7 Sword of Vorpal over the BFG, well… there just are. People will have their fun however they want it. However, it should be noted that the automation that happened with the turn-based combat will likely also happen with upgrading your inventory and stats, as can be seen in the “X-Men: Legends” action-RPG’s. Just as there are people who don’t enjoy constantly confirming “yes” to attack, there are also people like me who don’t enjoy looking at a massive spreadsheet in order to marginally improve my characters.

Technology is change. Progress is change. But technology isn’t necessarily progress. The current trend in video games is to make games more and more accessible to more people, and the direct result is that of making games more and more easy. Final Fantasy XII follows this trend by using technology to make choice selection easier and faster. This is in effect “giving something for nothing” and gives the illusion of an action game without actually requiring the reflexes and co-ordination to play an action game. Easier and easier games redefine games as less interactive and demanding when the complexity of technology and the maturing of gamers’ sophistication requires the opposite.

Rating: 2 out of a possible 3 stars. Recommended, but with caveats. Played on the PS2 for over 30 hours, made it to the Viera village.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The view from atop this soapbox isn't that great...

I just finished my "video game reviews are terrible" piece, and looking at it I'll admit it's very long. I could be outside running in the breeze, careless; but no, I'm inside tapping away at a keyboard trying to articulate myself.

I'll try to be more concise; my editor is out on vacation right now. I will say I've written elsewhere, made reviews and made posts on forums only to be labelled as "long-winded".

I don't think someone who plays video games frequently would ever be confused with being overly literate, but these essays of mine definitely aren't short. However, if I'm writing about it, then you can be sure that I'm saying it for a reason; it's all part of the arguement. I'll admit it; I think in essay form. I have an opinion, a thesis, something I want to prove; I'll back it up with other opinions and examples. I may segue into other topics, perhaps, but it would be for a reason.

I don't believe in an essay (a piece of writing in which you try to persuade others to your own opinion, and not just something you stay all night doing just to get a C) you should leave anything out. You take the pros, the cons, and piece everything together to try to make your argument airtight. It's a self-contained piece that should explain everything at once. Therefore, if you can fit everything you need to say into a 400 word essay, well then you are a masterful essayist.

However, I have some controversial opinions that I don't think I can explain so quickly. I think opinions like "video game reviews are terrible" or "Resident Evil 5 is racist" should be fully explored and have everything that needs to be said of them to be said.

Brevity is the soul of wit. The short attention span of netizens requires any and all information to be in short, manageable, consumable chunks. Sure, but I think I have something to say, something that hasn't been heard before, something worth saying. I hope you'll hear me out.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Reviewing Reviews: You Suck

Video game reviews are terrible. If one were to judge video games purely by reviews and not directly play them, then you shouldn't be blamed for thinking that video games are shallow time wasters that don't have much status other than a toy to play with--something that politicians and lobbyists still stereotype video games as being.

Video gamers are often inspired to write reviews on the games that they play, and these are terrible. Never mind the fact that the spelling and grammar are horrific and any readthrough of these require a red pen to make corrections with; sure, it's good to see some high schooler feel the need to articulate himself by writing a paper on Super Smash Bros., something he wouldn't do if the subject was something old and stuffy like the "Grapes of Wrath" or "Inherit the Wind". However, as video games are interactive media that reward players for successful achievement, players will invest their time playing whichever game emotionally. This immediately alters the experience into one of being intimate and personal, and thus encourages extremity of opinion.

This polarization allows for only a narrow point of view: something is either good or bad. In gamer parlance this becomes either "this game rocks!" or "this game sucks!" (ie. "this game gives me the rocking feeling!") This kind of review isn't a review at all, but instead an affirmation of an experience. The playing of a good video game proves to be an exciting, exhilarating experience, one that isn't possible through other non-interactive media; if so, a review by a video gamer will serve to affirm this experience by sharing this with other gamers by saying things like "this is the best game ever!". Conversely, the playing of a bad video game is boring and staid, and is far from the fun experience of a good game; as the player feels betrayed for investing his time in something that he hoped would give him the "rocking feeling", he lashes out at this game and deems it to be the "worst game ever".

Besides the polarization of opinion of good and bad, it also appears that every video game review is written with the same composition: a brief introduction outlining the history of the game or peripheral information about the developer or a personal anecdote, then a brief synopsis of the story, and then a rundown on the graphics, sound, gameplay and controls. After that come the complaints the player has in which he make a wish list that may be addressed in a future sequel to the video game, and then finally the conclusion "rent" or "buy" as well as the note "for fans of the genre/movie/comic/anime only".

There are several problems with this, not the least of which is the fact that a review about something should at the very least inspire original thought when in fact the opposite is true regarding video games. Video games continue to improve and evolve and have long since started to involve complex themes and issues, but video game reviews have by and large not matured alongside with it.

Video game reviews are entirely defined by what gamers see themselves as: consumers. Video game reviews serve as mini advertisements that wind up serving the companies that put out these products. Fanboys with their pointless allegiance to a particular platform or brand or game serve as PR men who work without a salary. However, the pro bono work done by these disciples to their higher calling is besides the point; no matter what the game, a video game review tells you to "buy" or "rent" but not "enjoy" or "experience" or "let this influence your thinking".

This ideal of reviewing also affects professional game reviewers, people that should serve as . The difference between professional and amateur game reviewing is sometimes small and other times vast. A professional game reviewer is literate, writes well and can articulate ideas better, thereby opening up discussion to a wider level. However, a professional game reviewer can also be subject to the simplistic "buy or rent" mentality of review and ignore themes and topics brought up by the game; s/he will be biased by the emotional impact of their own playing experience (say, for example, they lack the skills required to play said game); or they may be ill-informed and have a wrong opinion (please see my upcoming review for Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad, a game heinously misjudged).

However, these are are small problems of video game journalism compared with the main problem: the blatant buying of favorable opinions of game journalists by game publishers. Video games are a huge business and make lots of money; video game journalists will often work for a site/magazine that operates on advertising made from these same game developers. Barring the recent controversy regarding the Kane and Lynch Gamespot review, it is obvious a certain amount of collusion between the marketing of video games and the selling of video games occurs between the two are still the same industry, largely due to the fact of what we, the video gamer, see ourself as: a consumer. As a consumer we want the best product, and so the game publishers will disseminate this information through video game journalism, so therefore by proxy video game journalism acts as the video gamer's informed decision as to what to spend money on. We, as a gaming public, made the hypocracy that is video game journalism because it serves our need.

Another need is that of hype, or the anticipation of a game that will largely define it; other than spending money and playing it for yourself, this is what you can come to learn about a video game. The professional video game journalist is a product of this facade to generate interest and potential buyers of this game. If this professional journalist is specially invited to preview an advance copy before the rest of the public but is subject to certain conditions (ie. it must be played only at the game developer's premises for a certain amount of time), well, for this priviledge the game journalist will certainly only have good things to say about this game. By and far, the gaming public is more objective than a professional game critic could be.

This brings me to the last point in an already overlong post, that of scoring. Metacritic is amongst the worst things to happen to the internet, to put it mildly. Besides putting respectable , established reviewers out of a job by devaluing their individual voices, Metacritic emphasizes the fallacy that there is such a thing as a universal opinion. Metacritic celebrates uniformity and does not encourage freedom of thought. Netizens who use Metacritic as a valuable tool to judge whether something is good or bad should realize that everything that is rated on the site - movies, dvd's, cd's, tv and video games - isn't there because it's an art form. No, instead everything is there because it can be sold - it has a monetary value. Whatever you purchase that is rated high on the Metacritic scale is inconsequential in terms of artistic/aesthetic value since each critic, a separate voice, is blended into the other. When you listen to everybody you in fact are listening to no one in particular. No, the intrinsic value of Metacritic is for a particular person only - the people who make this stuff. They can figure out what gets high scores and what sells well to determine a formula to keep producing consumable products that will make money.

Metacritic takes every review and formats it to fit a scale from one to one hundred. This "out of a possible one hundred" is popular amongst video game reviewers; the conceit to know that one game is better than another, if just by a couple of points, is a fallacy to impose on a medium that is trying to be an art form on its own merits, inspite of us.

Indeed, if the popular notion is that something rocks or sucks, or is a must-buy or a rental, then shouldn't the grading system be matched with that? In that case, wouldn't the proper grading system be a one star system, one star for good and no stars for bad? That would be terrible; but then, video game reviews are terrible.

A Start to Articulation

Damn, I thought I was special, I thought I was different from everybody else. Not anymore-now I have a blog.

As it's the first post, who's to say how dilligent I'll be with this? My Myspace page has really all but dried up. Facebook is cool, but I find it quite a drain on my time (why won't my friends just shut up?). Furthermore, on Facebook I don't get a chance to talk about what I really want to talk about...

...video games. This is exclusively a blog devoted to video games, and my many nefarious thoughts concerning such. Which will be many, as I have a few which I hope to publish here.

First off, why video games? For something that many would see as a toy and for others at best a hobby, why talk about something as trivial as video games? After all, there are many important issues worth discussing affecting the world at large, and video games just aren't that important in the long run. They're entertainment, they're a distraction, they're something just for fun.

True. I won't buttress the importance of video games against things that really do matter (no examples needed for clarification; just about everything is more important than video games). However, I am moved to blog about video games because I disagree with just about everything that concerns video games.

Video game journalism is non-existent or populated with shills. Video game reviews have no original thought or discussion. Casual gaming is ruining video games, as are the trend towards having easier and easier games. Video games are art, but are the lowest form of art on the planet. Online gaming is a fundamentally flawed experience that will only become more popular in time. Video games are incapable of telling a good story. Video gamers are the reason video games can't improve and become something better than what they are now.

Now, those are a couple of things I wanted to get off my chest. I suppose I have some explaining to do.. well, I guess I better start posting.

One last thing: about the name. I signed up to a video game database and used the name lasttoblame, and I just like it. It doesn't mean at all that I am the last person to blame others; instead, I always consider it to mean that you should consider me the last person you should blame. Sure, it's a simple twist, now that you've got it we're both on the right track..