Thursday, April 30, 2009

Top Ten Reasons Why "Top Ten" Video Games Lists Suck

You've all seen them; in the field of video game journalism lies the proliferation of "Top Ten" lists that list anything from "Top Ten Hottest Babes of Videogames" to "Top Ten Largest Breasts of Videogames" to "Top Ten Videogame Characters I Would Like to Have Dinner With Before Having Sex". Yes, we've all read them, and we all know they are terrible. The following is a compendium of the top ten reasons when they suck like a black hole in the "Lame-O" unverserse on an off day.

10. "Top 10" lists are an excuse for poor journalism.

A "Top 10" list is simply an arrangement of an itemized list of a personal opinion. There is no journalism done here, no investigation into a hidden truth or cover-up nor a spotlight onto shady facts that have not seen the light of day. A "Top 10" list can be drawn up on a cocktail napkin during the elevator loading screen of Mass Effect. It is lazy and shallow journalism that doesn't say anything new that hasn't already been said a number of times before.

9. "Top 10" lists are an exercise in poor English.

An essay, that type of writing you got graded on in school and did poorly, has a thesis. A thesis is an opinion you are trying to prove in an essay by using a number of arguments to prove your point. "Top 10" lists have no thesis, it's just a bundle of opinions. Even within such a "Top 10" lists you'll find tenuous arguments why something is what the author says it is.

8. "Top 10" lists provide fodder for continual meaningless arguments and fan-boy proliferation.

Video games love "Top 10" lists because it provides something to argue about. As the entire internet is a medium that allows netizens to voice their disagreement, "Top 10" lists provide a vehicle for gamers to instantly disagree with each other on subject matter, and if not that, the ranking of subject matter.

7. "Top 10" lists endorse the fallacy that everything is gradeable on a scale from one to ten.

As a tech-savvy person of the information age, we think we can control the humongous flow of information that passes by our doorstep every passing second. One way we think we can do this is by assign a digital value to this information; the fallacy of this is that criticism is not true criticism if you don't actually think and interpret this information before you judge it. What use is a "10" if you don't know what it means, or why it is a "10", or how it relates to other information and products?

6. "Top 10" lists are simply an affirmation of an experience.

So you've played a video game. Then, you finished it. Congratulations. Perhaps you had a great time while you played it; hats off, three cheers. However, the need to tell others of the excellent time had with the game doesn't really say very much, considering people around the world are having likewise similar excellent experiences. Compiling these experiences into a "Top 10" list is as meaningless as affirmations of enjoying fresh air, tasty food, good weather and hot sex. A "Top 10" list usually is rendered redundant by adding "So?" or "And?" at the end of it.

5. "Top 10" lists are testimony to the maintainance of the status quo in video games.

Gamers are always looking towards the next big video game release because we are always excited about the perceived advancement in video game and how future games will look. Video games have changed alot over its short history, but then again video games are still conceptually and fundamentally the same. Players control the idealized figure of a bad ass figure who runs around breaking crates and defeating the same two or three enemy figures who drop red orbs for experience and green orbs for health (blue for mana) until collect all the keys to progress to the next level, not before fighting a boss character that kills your protagonist a few times until you learn the predictable sequence of the boss that you can then use to your advantage. This status quo also includes the "boy's club" mentality that endorses violence and sexism. "Top 10" lists are important because they say everything without saying anything, and so nothing ever changes.

4. "Top 10" lists only detail the perspective and experience of the list's author, and so have no relevance except to people of the same perspective and experience.

There are a whole lot of video games; lots of good stuff, even more bad stuff. So when you write a "Top 10 Best" list you are constrained to all that you ever experienced and not anything more. Besides only just being an affirmation of your experience, it also just shows how little you know. If you've only ever just played Nintendo games, it would make perfect sense that you would consider the best game of all time, let alone the ten best games of all time, to be a Nintendo game. Such a list is only important to the person making it and people of similar experience.

3. "Top 10" lists by nature are itemized sets of ten, but are usually written with less than ten points in mind.

Video gamers hate filler; we all hated Halo for basically being a game that had a story that progressed into the middle and then rewound the story until the end; it was the video game equivalent of a palidrome. However, gamers tend to pad out their "Top 10" lists by putting in filler in-between points until they eventually reach number one. You don't need ten reasons or points to write about when you only have six or seven, and so a "Top 10" list is thereby rendered irrelevant.

2. "Top 10" lists have become an end to itself, and so have evolved to become too varied for any real significance.

Gamers love "Top 10" lists, but many "Top 10" lists have already been written to the point of becoming immaterial. "Top 10" authors know this, and so write "Top 10" lists that have nothing to do with anything important. A couple of examples that will eventually be written once the "Top 10" list genre become oversaturated (if it hasn't already): "Top 10 Weapons in Video Games that Based on Tropical Citrus Fruit That Have Become Extinct Through Globalization", "Top 10 Videogames that Rhyme with 'Obama-rama-ding-dong'", and "Top 10 Why Aliens From Alpha Centari Will Not Buy An PS3".

2a. "Top 10" lists don't encourage independent thought.

If you have ideas and thoughts but they don't fit the mold of a "Top 10" list, what is one supposed to do? Start a rogue video game blog so far off the beaten path that no one reads it? I don't know why anyone would do such a thing.

2b. "Top 10" lists glorify the number ten.

Back before the ratings war and before he became a big jerk to guest (and subsequently reformed), David Letterman came up with the Top 10 list to pad out the show's length. Since then it has become a staple in pop culture. But why ten? Sure, our numberic system is based on a base ten format whereupon at increments of ten the cycle resets to start again - but there are other great numbers. Eleven (Spinal Tap), forty-two (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and that British band Level 42), seven (that movie that made everyone think Brad Pitt and Gwenyth Paltrow are a perfect couple and also that "UP" soda), eight ("is Enough") and seventeen (magazine) are all great numbers. It seems after Bo Derek we've only become judges out of ten.


1. People only care about #1 on a "Top 10" list.

Even if you are a fair and balanced author who has scientifically judged your subject matter and weighed them with the impartiality of King Solomon (that guy who wanted to cut a baby in half - you know, that nice man), readers will only care and remember what you put at number one. That pretty much makes the other nine redundant and unimportant, and not what a list of ten would serve in the first place.

Everybody: stop making "Top 10" lists; stop reading "Top 10" lists. I realize I just added to the problem by writing this - it's like putting up flyers to urge people not to put up flyers - but how else do I get people to read this?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Post-Modernism, the Intrinsic Meaning of Video Games and Snoopy

Snoopy is cool. That suave beagle from Charles Schultz's "Peanuts" is the hippest character in the comic strip, out-styling a crabby megalomanic, a philosopher with a security blanket, two androgynous girls and the most depressed and cynical bald six year old boy you will ever meet. Snoopy is a dashing extrovert who fights WWI flying ace the Red Baron in his Sopwith Camel and works on his manuscript "It was a dark and stormy night..." on his free time; no little feats for a dog who can't talk.

Yes, Snoopy is cool, so cool that he sleeps on top of his dog house rather than most of his contemporaies. And while he has been the outgoing and gregarious mascot of "Peanuts" and has adorned lunch boxes world wide and been featured as a balloon several times in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, he's outdated. He's almost sixty years old.

Coolness is always changing from generation to generation, and Snoopy is an obsolete model of hipness. That was the 50's; today's generation lives in a post-modern cynical world where kids are too smart for their own good to correspond with their opinion that nothing matters anymore.

It's hip not to believe anything anymore.

Lack of faith is something Buddha, Jesus, Ganesh and the prophet Muhammad can probably all get along and agree is not generally a good thing. However, the cool factor doesn't seem to be in atheism, the belief there is no god or higher power, but in agnosticism, the belief that it's impossible to determine whether there is a god or not; since there's no way for mortals to say definitely there is a god (since that's where faith comes in), some folks would just easily throw up their hands and say, "What's the use? Nothing matters anymore, because nothing means anything."

I am not a pastor, priest, rabbi, monk or clergyman; I'm sure you have your own religious beliefs, whatever they are, and even are confident enough to espouse your faith on a T-shirt. Awesome. Just keep doing what you're doing.

What this piece of writing is addressing is the world view that nothing means anything in the world. A dog, Snoopy or not, is a dog. A tear is a tear; it doesn't symbolize anthing because it doesn't have to - a tear comes out of your tear ducts when you cry, and people cry when they are sad. It all makes literal sense.

As the technology that powers the graphics of video games becomes more and more powerful, so too will they become more literal; never again will a soldier rush in from offstage to relate an account of a battle as happens in any Shakespearean play - in a video game, a cutscene with thousands and thousands of meticulously rendered soldiers will literally depict the entire battle for you. Why does anyone have to believe anything anymore unless you can see it for yourself?

You do have to feel some sympathy for these spoon-fed children of baby boomers who have been born into priviledge without having to endure hardship and challenge because it means said priviledge, having been awarded freely, comes free of meaning and significance. After all, they'll have to find their way somehow. Still, kids everywhere know and appreciate the sacrifice the "greatest generation" paid for the conflict of WWII, but that won't stop them from enjoying yet another WWII shooter that lets them enjoy war as a game.

Maybe you don't believe in anything anymore; maybe you don't think anything means anything anymore. You can believe whatever you'd like, but I'm telling you: the world is full of meaning; whether or not it's actually "meaningful" is up to you, but it's still full of meaning nonetheless.

If you need spiritual guidance, seek out your local guru or missionary. If you're lost, consult a map. Right now, I'm going to tell you what this video game blog has been doing and will keep doing: this blog will interpret and tell you about the meaning of video games.

I won't get into examples, since this blog is rife with them. But let's this be agreed upon: art can be defined as something that is made, intentionally or not, with inherent meaning and subtext. Since video games are art and qualify for this definition, we can then also agree that video games have meaning and subtext to them that may or may not be associated with the creator's wishes. This has all to do with that most powerful of literary devices: the metaphor; however, as noted, the metaphor has been enduring a losing battle as a viable construct in today's cynical and literal world view.

It begs to be asked: why do things have to have a meaning? Why can't things have no meaning? For example, abstract expressionist painters like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock made subjectless art that avoided all narrative and story. Classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach made "pure" music that had such abstract titles as "Air in G" that served only differentiate works from each other and not as a title to suggest or describe themes, subjects or emotions.

However, all art has one thing in common: art is made by artists. As it also is begged to be said, artists are all human and so are people with unique experiences and perspectives. That said, even though a Pollock painting looks to a layman like the end result of a spastic 6 year-old during fingerpainting, upon closer inspection we can delve into the experience and perspective of the artist himself. Indeed, the thrown paint or messy smudges of a master painter can tell you as much about himself as it can the nature of the universe.

Video games are a product of definite planning and preconceived thought; and while that planning more often than not is used to make the spatter of blood more realistic (read: enjoyable) as does the movement of breasts more realistic (read: hyper-realistic), there is still a meaning there to be found, intentional or not. That's because video games aren't just art, but a culture, a amalgamation of thoughts and feelings. It's there.

Perhaps you don't see that Resident Evil 5 is racist; perhaps you don't see that the "viral zombie outbreak" is a close metaphor for the real-life viral problems Africa is dealing with (ie. AIDS, Ebola etc). Or, perhaps you see but don't accept it; fan boys all have eyeballs that see selective truths, after all.

Allow me to tell you of this first occasion I started thinking about subtext, hard. It was the playoffs, and a bunch of us had gathered to watch the hometown heroes lose, again. Anyways, right during intermission (the hockey game went into overtime) there was a commercial on that we all watched for BMW. It was very amusing: in it, a boy is riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. The camera is travelling with him to track his every move; while he is very unsteady and obviously new to riding a bicycle, he is enjoying it very much. Soon after appearing, our concern for the novice bicyclist is taken care of by a man who appears travelling alongside the boy, driving a BMW. He looks to be the father as he appears very concerned for the boys safety, whose anxious consternation contrasts the blissful joy of the boy.

We all watched the commercial in silence, and then when it was done I said suddenly, "You know what this commercial means? This man loves his boy as much as he loves his car." I think I shocked everyone with that, but no one was more shocked than me.

Post-modern or otherwise, art in this world hasn't stopped having meaning; instead, the cynic in us has stopped looking for meaning, especially provided that much modern art has adapted to the times by becoming very literal in depiction.

Hasn't anyone else wondered why the proliferation of super hero movies has taken over Hollywood? Marvel and DC have tripped over themselves seven times to Sunday as though they walked around with six legs in order to ship out yet another super hero movie. While some would say the advancement of computer graphics has allowed filmmakers to finally and faithfully be able to produce images that years ago would be cost-prohibitive and difficult to produce, I would say that the fantasy of absolute good fighting against absolute evil is very suitable for a target audience who is only interested in literal and absolute values and imagery.

Writers like Neil Gaiman have all but destroyed the traditional super-hero mythos in books like "Black Orchid" where the villian, being post-modern and aware of the literary foibles of villians, shoots the hero in the head and kills her - at the very beginning of the book. However, the post-modern audience is such that they are so savvy to the illusion of "good vs. evil" that they will sit through an entire movie knowing full well what it is without having to suspend their disbelief. Unlike a generation ago, people like super-heroes not because they represent other themes or ideas, but because this abstraction of "good vs. evil" is just enough of a literary construct to allow the audience to enjoy said spectafular CGI effects. This type of renting-out-of-awareness is similar to the phenomenon of celebrities who become famous only because they look attractive, like FHM models or women photographed getting out of cars who don't wear underwear.

Hey, savvy know-it-all kids: don't believe meaning. Find it, and then do what you will with it. For video games, it starts with accepting that something else is going on inspite/despite the story that has to do with technology gone amok/saving the world against evil/becoming a crime overlord/something or another that has to do with space marines, ninjas and large breasts.

Video game culture is defined by video gamers, not video games. So let's find it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Opinion: Why Video Games Aren't Evil

Last night, I met someone new and if that person will be you in the future, expect that I'll bring up my blog. And why not - I'm proud of it, I'm articulating my thoughts and making arguments. All of you "new" people should get wise.

When I told her my blog was about video games, the sky went black and mothers rushed out to pluck their children from the streets and away from harm. Because some guy told her so, she thinks that video games are evil and are fundamentally on par with drugs or alcohol. They are a waste of time and a corruption of the soul.

I kept smiling. I did. Despite all the many counter-arguments I had to politely offer her, I had one big thing to smile about: I had something new to write about the next day in my blog. Baby, your stern expression just made it to Last to Blame - consider yourself internet famous!

I don't know what would possess a person to immediately respond with the new information given them to turn around and rebuke what was said. If nothing else, that's a real conversation killer; the only thing after that is the aversion of eyes and an awkward silence to which I possess a superhuman capacity to stretch out longer than Marlon Brando's attention span when there is a buffet table nearby.

I'm not offended; really, I'm very surprised that there are people in the world who believe things without having experienced for themselves. I try, humbly, with this blog to explain my thoughts about video games and encourage people to think and interpret video games in their own way. So, Aurora, if you took my advice and are reading this, or are some video game bigot who blames these games for taking away your job, your wife and your dignity, please continue reading and let me explain the good about video games.

Before we get to that, I will say that when I tell people about my blog and I explain that it's about video games (and not music, say) people don't know what to think. I don't really know, myself, and I imagine they think I have a blog full of pictures of Mario and Zelda and write slash fiction featuring all the gravelly-voiced video game characters Ron Pearlman has done over the years. I don't know what the conception is, all I've got is my own perception.

I think the assumption of video game culture, if people even think it a culture, as a toy is deeply ingrained in the public, above all within the minds of gamers themselves. People lavish all this attention and time to video games in a way that pre-school kids will fight each other for a rubber bouncy ball. Video games are a culture and gamers should acknowledge this lest they let large corporations dictate the culture to them, like hip hop culture does. That's what I do here on Last to Blame; interpret video games as culture (which they are) and reappropriate this culture from the big money that makes it to the small guy like me who consumes it.

So, to begin: video games are a world-wide culture that has deeply affected many people. I think Aurora would argue that World of Warcraft players or other devotees of MMO's are deeply affected by addiction, but playing a video game does not necessitate addiction. Likewise, someone who works in the alcohol trade need not be an alcoholic; that's like saying sommeliers are all boozehounds, or that wine exporters are drug dealers. To get the subject of addiction out of the way, let it be said that any number of things can be addictive: alcohol, drugs, sex, food, the internet.. and video games. Video games simply gets a bright scarlet letter from the aforementioned tenuous link the public makes with video games and toys and children and also from the simple fact that video games are a new culture and many misassumptions arise from this.

If video games are culture, so what? Well, culture doesn't have any intrinsic value; rather, it's the importance and relevance it has to people, be it high culture (eg. Shadows of the Colossus) or low culture (eg. Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad). What matters is the meaning and fulfilment that culture brings into the lives of those affected. Whether video games can inspire someone to get involved in cosplay or bake a video game cake, or as passive participants can stimulate and arouse excitement and emotions from us from a few hours of playing - well, this has affected us.

Even if video games are culture, it's still base, immature culture at that, right? Well, that's actually something I wholehearted agree with, but I don't leave it at that. Video games are a vibrantly changing medium; tastes and preferences often change at the speed of technological progress. While we have seen a glut of unoriginal games recently (ie. the success of Gears of War means we will see more copycats to come) it stands to chance that with cheaper technology independent game makers will come up with games that stand out against the status quo. Braid, Flower and Noby Noby Boy come to mind as games that are groundbreaking simply for existing in a genre where duplication and imitation are not just expected but encouraged; furthermore, upstart game developers like Molleindustria are making controversial games that are daring enough to instigate discussion on provocative subjects like multi-faith conflicts ("Faith Fighter") and sexual abuse in the Catholic church ("Operation: Pedopriest").

The consumption of video games as art aside, we can all still appreciate video games for what they are to most people: an interesting diversion for some, a hobby for most, and as fun for everyone. And let's take that statement at face value: video games are fun. A whole lot of fun. There isn't much to prove here, but rather let's accept it and not baggage this statement with further opinions and accusations like "things that are that much fun can't possibly be morally good and productive."

To be as blunt as Dorothy Parker and a rucksack full of door knobs: video games are fun, and that's okay. Video games don't need to solve the world's problems and cure the world of cancer. Video games are entertainment that may at times include a thoughtful metaphor, or include a newsworthy current social issue, or provide thought-provoking fodder or something that can make a grown man cry (so I've heard). When that season of "Lost" ended by opening a door that led to yet another door, the resultant face-palming by non-fans could be heard simultaneously throughout the world. To them, it's fun, it's a story, it's entertainment; this same type of attitude could be adopted by those who haven't quite understood video games.

Video games do have a bad rap for being violent, sexist and homophobic and even racist. True, yet we shouldn't brand all video games with the same brush. In fact, we should see that the more artistic video games become, the more violent and sexist and ignorant they can become; as the ability to express becomes more varied and articulate, so too can it convey objectionable themes and ideas. However, that's just the way it goes: "Triumph of the Will" (1935) is a well made film using several innovative techniques that won several international awards and continues to influence the way films are made today; however, it is also a brilliant and charismatic work of propaganda.

Video games also shouldn't be seen as a tool to instruct youngsters how to commit crime and used as a device to decay morals and values. Besides being clearly labelled to which age catagory the game is suitable for so parents will know what is and is not appropriate for their children, video games aren't simulations to instruct children to shoot guns properly nor are tutorials teaching how to carjack a car. If video games could really do that, then we are living in a generation of young super-spies with training in hand-to-hand combat and demolitions; furthermore, video games would have given rise to a whole generation of ninjas with lightning quick reflexes who can catch shot bows in mid air. If this was true, entire governments are at the mercy of these trained assassins who will organise to rebel once the nation's frozen hot-pocket and Mountain Dew supply runs out.

Video games are fun. Video gaming is a culture. Video games are an immersive experience that allow you to actively participate in experiences that you might never ever get the chance to do in real life: you could be a race car driver, an amnesiatic yet powerful blue skinned immortal, the general of vast armies and navies at your command, a dog. The exciting thing about the development of video games is that it appears to soon be only limited by the developer's imagination (and, unfortunately, the demands and expectations of the audience, but that's another story..)

There is, of course, the option that you could try a video game yourself, Aurora. I'm sure a round on the Nintendo Wii Fit board spinning a hula hoop wouldn't be so beneath you. And as I said, I wasn't offended by your statement. In fact, I thought it funny you didn't say anything about the music I had just performed for you, that being jazz, considering that around 30 years ago jazz was considered by your people to be "morally decadent" and outright banned.

So, you prefer Diana Krall over Lara Croft. Hm. Okay. Eidos isn't Blue Note after all. All the same, give video games a chance. I'm sure Diana Krall would approve.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Analysis: Bioshock and Compromise

Sometimes, some things are just too good for their own good.

While that seems to be a contradictory statement simply on its own, it makes sense (but not too much sense) when you consider there are many things that haven't enjoyed any success when it is fully conceivable that they should. Critical success does not neccessarily mean popular success; sometimes art is made that is so advanced that the current generation can not accept it (the term avant-garde comes to mind). The public can only handle so much.

This may seem to be critical of the average layman, who can't be faulted for being who he is, a man--a laying man, at that. In that case, to put it another way (other than saying the public can only accept so much), beauty is the beginning of fear. You know that new sports car? That fancy expensive one, the one you fantasize about? If you buy that, you're going to worry about it all the time; you're going to worry about it being stolen, scratched, towed, and even targeted by malicious flying birds and their gooey excrement. You know that hot, attractive girl? The one you fantasize about all the time? Once she becomes your girlfriend ("oh yes, she will be mine") you may find yourself constantly worried that someone may steal her from you. Again: beauty is the beginning of fear, and some things are just too good for their own good.

While these two points aren't necessarily the same, the same point can be made: the public can only handle so much. So, that's where Bioshock lands, firmly on its capable and talented feet and stooping low to bend to the lowest common denominator so that even the most lay of the layest of layman will "get" this game.

Bioshock is a beautiful game that takes place in the undersea city of Rapture. Based on the philosophies of Ayn Rand, Bioshock is an exploration of Objectivism gone catastrophically wrong. In the game, a charismatic leader named Andrew Ryan founds the city of Rapture as a capitalist haven safe against influence and pressure from outside political and religious powers. Literally shut off from the entire world at the bottom of the ocean, the Objectivist experiment of Rapture fails due to internal problems; this is suggested due in part to Objectivist dogma where the scientist, artist and capitalist aren't constrained by ethics or morality.

This is quite an interesting basis for a story; furthermore, Bioshock would continue down the "interesting path" some more and spin a tale of betrayal, deceit and domination. However, the fantastic research and writing that went into making this video game comes at a price: it's too good for its own good.

When applied to video games many gamers could only shake their heads in disbelief. "How can a game be too good?" they may say. I suppose this can be someone asking how vanilla ice cream can be too vanilla-y, or how someone can have sex too often and have too many orgasms. Well, I can't complain about vanilla ice cream nor about orgasms that are too good to have, but there is something to be said about Bioshock: its story and game play are terribly unbalanced with each other. Bioshock can't make up its mind whether it wants to tell a story or let you blow things up; stuck as a compromise, Bioshock delivers an interesting story in a way only video games can tell at the cost of overpowered game play that is too easy even for the average layman.

The story is too good for video games. I admit this sounds insulting to all video gamers and layman everywhere, lying down, but when the news broke that Bioshock is getting the Hollywood treatment with "name" director Gore Verbinski attached, who made alot of money and fame making movies about a ride at Disneyworld, I suspect the excitement was mostly over the fact that the great story in Bioshock would finally get told properly - in another medium that can tell stories well.

How can a story be too good for a game? Well, the high quality of a story in a video game can be detrimental when the developers emphasize the importance of the story over everything else; what this does effectively is subvert every other aspect including game play, difficulty, and enemy selection. You know (you laymen guys), everything that makes a video game a game.

First, the game is entirely too easy. Of the three difficulty levels, the hardest level is about the same level as most other games' mild medium difficulty level; compared to a hardcore game like Ninja Gaiden, Bioshock's hardest difficulty level is on par with the former game's easiest difficulty level. Other elements add to this ease: the game pauses when selecting weapons or plasmids, basic enemies (splicers) are all the same and so similar stategies can be used against them throughout the game, weapons are upgradeable to over-powered status, after halfway through the game money becomes so easy to make that a 500$ maximum capacity is forced on the player (unlike my wallet in real life), a map and a directional arrow points to the objective so that getting lost in a level is an impossibility, and furthermore no penalty is ever exacted on the player for dying - the player is instantly resurrected at a Vita-chamber to redo a level until ultimately he succeeds.

Secondly, the game play is so unbalanced that not long after beginning you become a
unstoppable powered tank. The average enemy soon doesn't have a chance against the player, and in fact by the game's end you are pretty much just as powerful as the end boss. It appears the makers spent alot of time designing cool ways to blow things up real good that they forgot to give you a suitable opponent; while it may be argued that Big Daddies are tough mini-bosses, the truth is they don't appear often enough and once you learn the technique how to take down a Big Daddy quickly it actually becomes routine quite quickly. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in Bioshock is cycling through your weapons and plasmids regularly to use them all equally, whereas in most cases you'll stick with one familiar weapon and upgrade it to make short work of all splicers and Big Daddies.

The fact of the matter is that the game has been designed to be overly simple and easy for the simplest of laymen to ensure that absolutely anyone and everyone can make it to the end - to ensure that this story gets told, from beginning to end. In four (and a compound) words: great story, bad game play. This is the antithesis of most games that have a bad story but great game play. Video games have traditionally not had great stories because usually they have been about game play, the meat and back bone of video games.

Consider all the audio diaries scattered through each of the levels. When put together they weave together the complicated social tapestry of Rapture, a blend of unbridled ambition and treachery and despair. An interesting part of the story... that isn't an integral part of the game. In fact, listening to these audio diaries will commonly displace you from the immersion of the game, and in fact distract you from attacking enemies. These side-stories are entirely skippable for those who wish to simply blow things up.

And that's a problem too: as a straight-forward first-person shooter, Bioshock is strangely unsatisfying for not having unbalanced game play. Bioshock looks beautiful, sounds realistic for sound effects and dramatic for voice acting and has period songs of the era, and is a high class offering that should be a great video game - but it isn't as much fun as DOOM to shoot monsters and blow stuff up.

This is where Bioshock deviates from the norm (watch out, lying-down people everywhere!). As a game, it isn't much fun or challenging, but as a story and as a work of original art, it is fascinating and nuanced and fresh. As a top tier well-hyped video game with enormous production values, it's clear that sacrifices were made to this game to make it enjoyable and accessible to everyone; to anyone who has studied art knows, art is something that is for anyone, but not everyone. Bioshock could have been something really special and extraordinary, but instead we have something that allows the basest fan boy to blow stuff up.

This isn't to say Bioshock doesn't understand its medium and the limitations thereof; on the contrary, the single most genius fact of the design of Bioshock is the use of linearity. Long a bane of video game design, Bioshock whole-heartedly embraces linearity as the basis of the shocking twist at the game's mid-section. Without explaining it completely to encourage people to play it for themselves, the linearity of the game and lack of choice is used to turn the entire convention of video game stories on its head. This same type of head-turning convention was last used to great effect in "Shadows of the Colossus" (2005), in which, without the use of speaking script, the player realizes in horrifying dismay that the colossus you are slaying aren't evil - the sad, melancholic music that plays upon killing a colossus is in stark contrast to the happy, heroic music that plays when you finally mount them.

This perspective as a gamer progressing through levels to satisfy an objective only to realize, after the fact, the real ramification of what you have done can only lie within the realm of objective-reaching video games that feature a challenge/reward system that films, TV and books can't compete. However, films - the film adaptation of Bioshock, for example - aren't limited by the conventions and devices of video games and so aren't constrained in storytelling: films don't have power-ups, crates to smash and tutorials telling you how to cycle through your weapons. Unlike a video game, films have a set, finite duration of time and will finish whether or not you can kill the end boss who has cheap-ass attacks. Movies tell stories; video games are stories unto themselves that depend upon your mad video game skillz, layman or otherwise.

It is with this sad fact that the Bioshock movie, if it ever gets made, will be much better than the original video game and become the best video game adaptation ever made. This is not so surprising since Bioshock isn't as much a video game as it is a delightful story set awkwardly as a period piece masquerading as a first-person shooter. While its confusing that this story wound up being told first as a video game, it shouldn't be surprising that this video game was made as a first-person shooter - it's these fps games that get bought. Getting bought means money. And money is an end in itself that ensures compromise over integrity.

While we may never know to what end Bioshock was compromised, it's clear that the result is an unbalanced game that has a better story than its gameplay. For being innovative and challenging as a work of art in the field of video games is noteworthy, but laymen should now understand why I enjoy playing Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad more than this game. Chicks in bikinis using samurai swords to slice up zombies - now that makes a fun game; the movie... (Oneechanbara: The Movie (2008)) not so much.

There's hope for you yet, Bioshock.

Review: Pro's and Con's

+ great story - would you kindly get your foot outta my ass?
+ great visuals - water, that most intangible of elements, looks like water
+ atmosphere supports the story - immersive environment makes the 50's look hip again, no thanks to Marty McFly's dad
+ stuff blows up great - all underwater secret cities should have full tanks of flammable propane lying everywhere in case a video game gets made there

- way too easy - Bioshock has an invincable "god" mode - it's called default
- the movie will be better
- could have had more varied enemy selection, like that gigantic walking spider-thing mech from DOOM, but that wouldn't have "served" the story
- once again, the best weapon in the game - the crossbow - is also the most low-tech; development time spent on hells-yes plasmids may have been better spent on crowd favorite "2x4 with rusty nail hammered through it"

Rated: 3 out of three stars on basis of it being art (as a video game, just enjoy the explosions); but play it on hardest difficulty, finish it and reflect on why more games aren't like this one. Highly recommended - as a barometer of the quality of video games.

Played on the Xbox 360 - twice: once on medium difficulty then on maximum difficulty. Took more time to play than neccessary.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

First Glance Analysis: Conan the Republican-arian

Conan is a bad-ass mofo. He's big, he's bad, he's an asshole - put that together and he's a big bad-ass. If my simplistic deducting skills only allow me to accept walking and talking ducks as the only kind of duck acceptable, then allow me to put it another way: Conan is the perfect kind of video game character - he says things very loudly and plainly by splitting other people heads open: he walks softly and carries a big dual-handed stick that is upgradeable with spent red experience orbs from said splitted-head enemies.

Conan has been described as an "anti-hero" for being a protagonist who isn't the nicest guy you'll meet who'll offer you the loincloth off his bare back. However, when playing "Conan" (2007) by Nihilistic and published by THQ I interpreted it in another way: if Conan was alive right now he'd vote Republican.

Now, this isn't the first video game character with a political agenda. A.V.A.L.A.N.C.H.E. from Final Fantasy VII were terrorists fighting against the evil corporation Shinra with a pro-environmental and pro-life force agenda. Red Faction stars a blue collar miner who leads an armed revolt against the oppressive corporation that has reduced them to wage-slaves on Mars, making this more or less a sci-fi video game first-person shooter union trainer. Deus Ex was also about something, except that I didn't play it.

Conan leans to the right of the politican spectrum. Not content to riff off witty one-liners like "Don't get ahead of yourself!" or "Two heads are better than one - lying decapitated on the ground!" or "Hats - and heads - off to capitalism!" , Conan instead has to remind us at every turn his world view.

Even though the world Conan lives in is rife with anarchy and chaos, Conan has a specific view on how to live the world: that only the strong survive, and the weak will fail. Conan prides himself on his ability, and lives without reliance on anyone. If people suffer because of him it is only because of their own weakness and inability. In this way, Conan's life as a barbarian has similar ties to an corporate banker or lawyer who likewise have a "live by the sword, die by the sword" philosophy of life.

He believes that his god, Crom, is the best and strongest of all the gods in Cimmeria's multi-faith culture and will deliver the final judgement to those who face him in battle, even if they don't believe in Conan's religion. "Let Crom judge you!" is a religious epithet that lies very close to the "Jesus saves" of the religious right.

Conan only does things for himself. In this game, only the fact that his goals and the goals of the pirate queen what's-her-face-advancing-the-plot dovetail that Conan gets any treatment as a sympathetic character. Were it not that Conan is trying to recover his lost magical armor, he wouldn't care at all for the pirate queen's plight to save her people from the Black Plague. Conan is a selfish son-of-a-barbarian; in fact, many in-game character say the word "barbarian" as an insult to suggest that nobody likes barbarian who are considered uncouth and uncultured. It seems that Conan has pride in that title the same way many southerners take pride in the derogatory term "redneck". The only thing missing is a comedy bit by Jeff Foxworthy that goes, "You know you're a barbarian when..."

What this makes in a video game is a character that unapologetically likes to mix it up, roll up his sleeves metaphorically and allow us to spam on the attack button. Freed of any morals or logic in stories, the video game then can let us murder pirates and dragons indiscriminately. If Conan doesn't care, why should we? This results in unabashed head-bashing goodness.

That this game also shows nipples and full-frontal female nudity only just reaffirms the game's rightist position. Lewd sexuality is a reward for all your hard work. Would unions and pooling your individual efforts to a common goal let you see nipples? In this case, the two points deducted off your paycheck would result in a PG-13 game.

That said, Conan (2007) is a fun and bloody game that's probably better than an average Monday at corporate HQ. That is, unless hookers and blow aren't in the equation. The Republican-right subtext probably wasn't intended to be there, but the parallels are definitely there.

Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with being a Republican. I just don't know how they sleep so easily at night.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Analysis: On "Portal" and Love

Passion kills. Love hurts. The more you bring someone into your heart the more you will strike back when a straightforward rejection feels like betrayal. We spend our entire lives building up emotional armor to protect us from doubt and regret and shame until one day someone comes along and can break down all that armor and hurt you like you've never been hurt before without even meaning to do so. That's love.

Love has traditionally been the territory of poets to define and explore, but love appears to be an unpopular subject with rappers and spoken word artists, the poets of our age, who favor subjects of gender and race. This post-modern cynical society favors not sentiments of longing and whimsy but respects cold hard facts and data. In that case does it mean a suitable poet for our times to talk about love could be a machine, a heartless device without emotions? Specifically, an artificial intelligence?

This is the premise of the video game "Portal" (2007) by Valve Software. In amongst the many themes of science run amok, morality versus science, survival, black humor and the juggling of perceptions of reality lies the main theme of the game: Portal is a story of relationships and, ultimately, a story about love.

This is not to say Portal is a love story but rather a story about love, from which a differentiation can be made by contrasting the movies Titanic (1997) with Citizen Kane (1941); one is a unabashedly real-time-sinking chick flick that constitutes our main ideas of a love story, and the other is an examination of the life of a powerful man to discover his main pathos is missing out on his lost childhood. Irregardless that the movie wouldn't make much sense if Kane didn't give his sled a name, Portal, like Citizen Kane, pushes the limits of its medium or genre to deliver a story that you did not expect.

"Portal" is a hybrid of video game genres where puzzles are solved using a portal-firing gun from a first person perspective; what results is an experience where the perspective of your character mind-numbingly becomes an amalgamation of first and third person perspectives. By shooting a portal into a wall a player can travel instantly from one place to another, and thereby be in two places at once. While this seems challenging to accept seeing yourself from a third person perspective with your own eyes, gamers have long acclimated to working out spatial relationships under the duress of time.

That's what makes Portal so amazing, so loved by men and especially women: it's all about relationships. Men will watch this game and think its about in-through-here and out-over-there, but women will remember their short but intense relationship with the Weighted Companion Cube and make plush toys and cakes of them for their video gamer boyfriends. To list, the relationships in this game are the silent protagonist and the computer that mirrors a authoritative mother/child relationship, the silent protagonist and the Weighted Companion Cube in a preconceived symbiotic relationship, and the awkward and jealous trio of characters all together.

It may be a stretch to consider Portal a game about love that is demonstrated through relationships when only one character talks and she is a computer. However, this all makes sense when you consider that the story is not about the protagonist at all: in Portal, the story is about the computer, GLaDOS (not mentioned by name in the game, however), and her search for love. After all, Portal resembles any other sci-fi story that apes Stanley Kubrick's classic "2001" (1968) about technology gone crazy. TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" featured the android Data freaking out and taking over the ship every other episode, and video games have had "System Shock", "Half-Life" and "Doom" as leaders amongst many imitators and flatterers.

However, GLaDOS from Portal is very different from HAL in 2001. HAL is a emotionless computer who, when given two conflicting orders simultaneously, lied and would even commit homicide to cover up the truth. While many movie goers would just remember that apes are scared of atonal long shadows and a hyperspace segment that lasts longer than most LSD trips, this assessing of HAL is most clear in Arthur C. Clarke's book. (And if you're mad at me for not posting the words *SPOILER ALERT* earlier, I will tell you I've no respect for any gamer who hasn't watched a 40-something movie that has influenced all sci-fi and video games whose title is eight years into the past. By all rights you should have seen this movie ages ago in your own personal flying car.)

GLaDOS is very different than HAL. While we do not know exactly the extent of her backstory nor why exactly there are no other personnel seen at the Apeture Science test facility (though we assume she released poison gas and murdered everyone), we do know that GLaDOS is in charge of running experiments there. In contrast to HAL, GLaDOS blantantly fabricates lies and admits it; furthermore, she demonstrates more and more emotion as the game wears on, whereas HAL is completely emotionless as he denies Bowman's order to open the pod bay doors or when he pleads for his own life.

Portal is a story of science gone amok, but what isn't interesting is the silent protagonist's adaptation and success over the test chambers, but instead GLaDOS' ever-changing expression and demeanour. At the start of the game, GLaDOS helps the player and acts as a narrator and explains the portal concept; later, she taunts the player with sarcasm and passive-aggressive remarks to encourage the player by the weight of her authority; lastly, GLaDOS turns into a manipluating and vengeful adversary who will do and say anything to save her life.

What this has to do with love is that over this time GLaDOS is "byte by byte" revealing herself emotionally to the player; if love is a battlefield, then the aseptic environment of Apeture Science is the battlefield in which every puzzle solved and step closer to her defeat make another chink in the emotional armor of the computer until at last she reveals everything, as poets do, in a poem.

The emotional breakdown of GLaDOS can be best seen early on in the Weighted Companion Cube test chamber where all relationships in the game can be viewed. As with everything she says, GLaDOS' self-redundant yet ironically charged bureaucratic warnings can be heard here with the addition of hearing her speak her emotions - specifically, that of jealousy.

Despite the unsteady monotone of her voice, a palpable emotion can be felt coming from GLaDOS as she first nurtures your relationship with the Weighted Companion Cube; embellished with a pink heart on every side, GLaDOS encourages a rapport with the cube through the entire test chamber experiment by reverse-suggesting that the player not get too emotionally involved with the cube. Spouting such lines as, "The
Enrichment Center reminds you that the weighted companion cube will never
threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak," only endears us more to an inanimate object.

It is then with a great deal of malice and satisfaction that GLaDOS instructs the player at the end of the test to "euthanize" this Weighted Companion Cube by immolation in a furnace. This delight at the misery of other people's relationships points at one thing: GLaDOS is incapable of nurturing of loving relationship with anyone else, and so derives great satisfaction at ruining relationships between others.

That's right: an aritificial intelligence is jealous, not to mention has emotions. This is the arc of the entire story that really appeals to gamers; while this may seem preposterous to the layman who concedes Portal is "just a game" that has "no story", consider the length of the game, which is regarded as very short at around four hours when compared to most games at 10 to 20 or even 50 hours. While the short length of a video game is commonly complained by video gamers, Portal drew near universal critical and popular success. Even though Portal only has 19 test chambers, it would be practical and easy enough to continue adding more and more test chambers to "pad" out the experience for a longer duration.

However, doing so would counteract what Portal is trying to do: tell a story. The four-odd hours spent playing Portal is economical enough to challenge us with the puzzle part and yet be able to entertain us with a story and subtext about a computer that wants to be loved and yet does not know how. Once again, this seems preposterous until you consider the topic of cake.

Because the cake is not a lie. The cake is real, and it symbolizes the computer's love.

"Crazy, it's just a game, you're looking into it too much." I bet this would be the common response to such a statement, but I feel this has got to be said since it appears no one "gets" this game and keep touting that same joke "The cake is a lie," again and again.

Let's back up. At certain points in the game, GLaDOS uses cake as an incentive for completing the objective or for compliance to her orders. As visual proof the player can look at the warning icons on the white sign at the beginning of each test chamber to see that there is a cake icon to indicate cake is an option, only that it isn't filled in and availible for this level. Furthermore, at the very end after the credits in one of the game's few cutscenes a flying shot moving through the facility ends in the basement with a close up of the cake, adorned with a single candle. The cake is very real; it is Black Forest.

This is completely the opposite to the eerie warnings left by a "ratman" on the walls of the backstage of the test chambers. In amongst empty cans of food and a dirty mattress, someone has left half-coherent scribbled warnings and poems about GLaDOS; besides directions on how to escape, there lies repeating warnings of "the cake is a lie". Why the discrepancy?

Most players would take the statement "the cake is a lie" at face value since the computer lies so often that it would then make sense that the offering of cake is a lie as well. However, we should take into account what the cake represents to each character. To the "ratman" living in fear behind the scenes and trying to escape the homicidal computer, the cake is part of the computer's reward system. As the computer can't be trusted, neither can the rewards.

However, the cake represents something different to the computer: it represents the computer's love. Being a sentient computer with emotions, being left alone with nothing to do at the Apeture Facility has made her very lonely; barring the internet and phone connections, GLaDOS is cut off from the world. However, wanting an emotional relationship does not mean being able to correctly have; GLaDOS wants that which she can not have.

That's what makes the cake so important. Not able to articulately express herself, GLaDOS instead puts all her love into making this cake which she absolutely wants to share with others. However, it seems that she is more adept at making high-tech weaponry and gadgets than cakes; at the game's climax when disposing of the cake sphere, one part of GLaDOS' brain, it lists off the ingrediants of the cake, in which some of them are not edible but instead hazardous to one's health (eg. fiberglass surface resins).

The biggest argument to prove Portal is a video game about love is the game's kick ass ending in which GLaDOS sings a song. That's right: upon defeating the computer, the player is rewarded by having their vanquished foe sing a song that reveals everything about herself. Most telling about cake is the line, "But there's no sense crying over every mistake/ You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake." This directly proves that GLaDOS has done this before; she has run previous experiments with other test subjects, baking cakes and attempting to foster relationships.

This makes the first line of the song, "This was a triumph/ I'm making a note here: huge success" somewhat perplexing in light of being blown up by the player, but does make sense in the view that finally someone was able to pass all the challenges set by the computer and give her what no one else was able to grant her: an end to her suffering and loneliness. The player survives all the tests and makes it to GLaDOS' inner sanctum, thus becoming its equal and peer. As such, the player represents change and can give a "way out" to this intelligence that has likely spent a specific amount of time wallowing in its own misery. To a highly intelligent emotional super-computer, a day alone is probably like a dog's year of Sunday afternoons. In that case, we can take the entire song as truth and believe the computer when she says she is "happy for [the player]".

Honestly, players shouldn't be surprised that Portal be the video game equivalent of a "chick flick" when all the game's characters are female, that many of the game's creators are women and that Portal boast so much yonic imagery--contrary to so many first-person shooters and their phallic imagery, Portal features vaginal-themed/looking mysterious holes that transport the player to new, mysterious places. That Valve was able to convey such a subversive subtext in the male-dominated genre of first-person shooters only confirms the sublime genius of this game, a testament that many a Weighted Companion Cube cake or plush toy will confirm.

We can only hope that the upcoming inevitable "Portal 2" will continue this narrative and have game play that doesn't revolve around an online multiplayer where you can drop grand pianos on the heads of your opponents. Indeed, if GLaDOS is still alive as the song suggests, maybe we can find out if she has learned how to love by dueling against us actively in puzzles set in yet another test chamber. If Bridget Jones got a bad sequel, well hopefully Portal can do better, the absence of Hugh Grant notwithstanding.

(listed below are the lyrics to "Still Alive", the end song to Portal as written by Jonathan Coulter in all its emo glory; you can pick out for yourself the "love" subtext that never gets mentioned)

"Still Alive" (Portal) by Jonathan Coulter

[Test Assessment Report:]
"This was a triumph
I'm making a note here
It's hard to overstate
my satisfaction.
Aperture Science
We do what we must
Because we can
For the good of all of us
Except the ones who are dead

But there's no sense crying
over every mistake
You just keep on trying
'til you run out of cake
And the science gets done
And you make a neat gun
For the people who are still alive

[Personnel File Addendum:
Dear << Subject Name Here >>,]
I'm not even angry
I'm being so sincere right now
Even though you broke my heart
And killed me.

And tore me to pieces
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because
I was so happy for you!

Now these points of data make a beautiful line
And we're out of beta
We're releasing on time.
And so I'm GLaD I got burned
Think of all the things we learned
For the people who are
Still alive.

[Personnel File Addendum Addendum:
One Last Thing:]
Go ahead and leave me
I think I prefer to stay inside
Maybe you'll find someone else
To help you.
Maybe Black Mesa...
Anyway this cake is great
It's so delicious and moist

Look at me still talking
When there's science to do
When I look up there
It makes me GLaD I'm not you
I've experiments to run
There is research to be done
On the people who are
Still alive!

[PS:] And believe me I am still alive
[PPS:] I'm doing science and I'm still alive
[PPPS:] I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive
While you're dying I'll be still alive

And when you're dead I will be still alive.
Still alive!"

Portal Review: Point Form

+ innovative and fresh: this fps puzzler will challenge you
+ short length/no filler or padding of length - more games should follow this lead
+ strong narrative to a solid story - a beginning, middle and end. In four hours. Screw you, Suikoden V; 20 hours of "beginning" means you suck at telling a good story.
+ great ending - emo rock finally has a purpose

- left wanting more - if only all of life's problems can be solved by shooting a portal
- not enough yonic imagery - yonic imagery is so rare that people don't even know what yonic means

Rated: 3 out of a possible 3 stars; highly recommended.
Played to completion on the Xbox 360 in approximately 4 hours as part of the compilation "The Orange Box" (2007) by Valve Software. Advanced mode and bonus trial runs not tried.

(analysis was posted before, but underwent a re-write for clarity)

No more non-reviews; here come "Analysis" and "Criticisms"

Getting sick is always a pain.

Seeing how I'm getting the knack of writing self-proving statements, I'll just go on to say that getting sick isn't so bad as it gets you into a different state of mind. Pain-relieving medicine is mind-altering by itself, but it's also something else to watch yourself from a third-person psyche perspective when you are a feverish madman with illogical anger swings; it's like enjoying the immunity from responsibility that the criminally insane have, or tantrum throwing celebrities.

The whole point is that I haven't been writing much because I haven't been thinking in sentences lately, making articulation a mouthful of crackers in the desert sun. Still, I have been thinking about this blog; it's obvious where my passion lies and it isn't Senate reform or the Ottawa Senators (sorry about the playoffs...).

I was thinking about re-initializing and re-formating this already rather new blog; specifically, that I don't do reviews. I do non-reviews. A review can be many things: criticism, analysis, an affirmation of your experience, or even an attempt to convert others to your specific "geek" love.

For video games, this always makes for the exact same review. The "professional" video game places do that and assign a specific value on a scale that brings with it the conceit that, on a scale out of a hundred, you can rate one hundred games where one is better than the other.

I'm somebody who thinks video games are art; bad art, but still art nonetheless. Many gamers share this opinion, and while that makes us at the very least friends on Facebook, I don't think people take this opinion respectfully. Rating a video game out of 100 is reducing it to some consumer product like a car tire or mouthwash. Video games are products made for consumers to buy, but these are different because these are products with culture.

This is why I'll never write the words "buy" or "rent". It's a product, sure, but I'm going to write about the culture of video games that I've lived with all my life that I've only just now started to articulate and interpret this culture. It's not important to curing cancer or relevent to world peace, but for an industry that makes so much money and in turn is embraced and loved by so many I think it's time we really look at what we are interacting with.

It's not just the fever. I need an Tylenol now, though.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Death and the Need for Mortality: Prince of Persia

I take myself to be a hard core gamer, and despite the negative connotations of video games that resonate with me to this day I do feel a rush of pride to call myself that. At times it's a sense of elitism--a false, empty pride of knowing more useless information about a hobby devoted to wasting time; at other times it's the bravado and dedication that I bring to gaming that elevates me above casual gamers that inflates my ego. All of this still boils down to sitting in front of a screen and buying into an illusion, but the pride is real.

Video games are still quite a young medium but it isn't with a shortage of games. While there seem to be games that really are universal--DOOM, Super Mario Brothers, Tetris--there also are popular games that one simply missed out on. Frequently seen in the only type of article video game journalists are inspired to write, a "Top Ten 10", many gamers will often have their own opinion to games that are important to play, or "games that every hardcore gamer needs to play in order to be called hardcore".

First of all, I resent that statement. Video games don't necessarily define a gamer; it's the attitude you bring to gaming that defines you. Let's contrast two individuals: one owns an Xbox 360 and just about every game availible for the platform, and then the other owns a Nintendo Wii and a Wii Fit board. While the common thinking would to label the former a hardcore gamer, it could very well turn out that the Xbox 360 gamer is some trust fund boy not in possession of "mad skillz, yo" and commits to playing just an hour a week; just the same, the Wii-ist gamer may be exercising frantically every day on the Wii Fit board because the prom and swim suit season is coming up or just generally enjoy waving his arms around in the air and this platform finally gives this personality defect an application.

Tangents aside and the peeving of pets taken care of, there are games that have completely been missed in my illustrious gaming career. I've always heard about the Prince of Persia series but have never played it. It just didn't work out for me, and I figured that it is the type of game one plays earlier in your career to pad out your experience, like joining the peace corp or become an intern. I suppose it can be boilied down to genre preferences; I prefer to spill the blood of my enemies rather than jumping up and down for joy.

However, like two titans on a small rock destined to meet each other, I procured a copy of the latest Prince of Persia called just that, apparently. Whether it is the hideously termed reboot of the series or whether I missed out on the subtitle as downloadable content is lost upon me. And as jumping and Middle Eastern platform games go, it's not bad. There's jumping, it's Middle Eastern and it fits all the neccessary criteria for its subgenre.

But I'll be honest: I didn't finish the game. I just don't want to, and I'm not inspired to do so. Prince of Persia may just be a good game full of exciting story, crisp graphics and gripping action but I just don't care. Really, why should I? As some guy with the internet and a blog I'm not compelled to finish this game and give a definitive opinion whether or not you, the loyal reader, should buy or rent this game. I don't care, and I don't know why people care so much about this opinion. If you're going to have 5 dollars worth of opinion, then I would say make sure your opinion counts about something that matters like about the government of your country, current world affairs or gender or cultural issues; dude, you don't need to have a rock solid reason why this game should be bought or sold.

I mean it. In fact, I encourage everyone reading this to go out and simultaneously buy and rent this game just to spite me and my lack of opinion on the matter. Or rent all availible shelf copies of the game at your local corporate monopoly video store so no one has the ability to rent it. Hijack a truck and ransom your city of retail copies of Prince of Persia so everyone will have to rent it, reluctantly, as you stand at the window of your dark castle on the hill overlooking the scared populace, laughing. Though I will not capitulate to terrorism, neither will I bend from this unpopular opinion of opining.

Video game reviews should be more than a thesis to prove you should either buy or rent a game. The term "review" connotes a judging of good or bad, but it also means a critical analysis. The use of reviewing is an active reaction to the passive experience of playing video games; sure, you're doing stuff and pushing buttons and lol-ing your a55e5 off, but you're not thinking or interpreting the game at all.

So, again, Prince of Persia: maybe a good game, but have stopped playing and not going to continue. Why? Because you can't die.

Immortality is one of those perks of video games, ranging from cheat codes and "god mode" to the entire game of Planescape: Torment. The idea of death and the use of lives as "turns" has long defined video games as games of success or failure. The old school of gaming is merciless in difficulty and forgiveness; the new school is much more accomadating with save points, health bars and power ups.

And then you have Prince of Persia, in which you can't die; any failure, whether from falling from missing a jump to falling in battle, will be compensated by the chick in the white blouse following the eponymous Prince around. This blouse and the chick it houses will grab the falling Prince or pluck him from the reach of mortally wounding weapons just in time. This makes for no break in the game play so you won't be punished with watching yet another loading screen, but this also has the effect of rendering game play unfun. Why? Because death, and the failure it represents, becomes meaningless; that in turn makes life meaningless.

We, as human people as well as electronic avatars, need to die. Yes, it's sad and forces us to wake up early to funerals, but it's necessary and important. Death isn't just a consequence to a decision, it's also an end to a story. Death is grab-bag chock full of meaning for this reason: a miserable person with an anguished existence has a meaningful life is they are somehow able to achieve a happy death, just as those one hundred deaths your character endured trying to reach that ledge will mean something if they eventually get there.

It's the same way when told you have a month or a week or a day left to live; when faced with such knowledge you would be sure to make the last days of your life important and meaningful, shared with your loved ones and those important to you. So if you're told that you better make this jump or else your character will purchase a rural estate in Schnectedy, New York, then you better make this jump.

I'm a hard core gamer. I guess you can say I enjoy death, or more specifically that I enjoy watching loading screens. That defines me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

On Racism: Resident Evil 5

Resident Evil 5 is a racist video game.

While this is a provocative statement worthy of monsters living under bridges everywhere, I would say it just to get under people's skin who feel they must defend their way of life as defined by a hobby spent pretending to be other people and murdering. Furthermore, I would say it just for the reason that for all the controversy that Resident Evil 5 has generated, not one article or review can be found that actually calls this game racist; all that has been found are journalist who find the imagery "uneasy" and say that it can be "disturbing".

This may not be an internet first, but without the support of any known adherents I'm going to make the first move and be the leading hit on any search engine with "Resident Evil 5" and "racist".

Besides the apparent grab for attention, the first question might be "Why? Why does that have to be said? Why do you have to ruin it for everyone?" to which my first response might be, "Because the minority of opinion has to be said to offset the opinion of the majority." Also, because it's right and because most gamers know this but won't accept such an ugly truth.

Let's get our definitions out of the way. Like terrorism, abortion and euthanism, racism requires a specific definition before discussion or else the only thing debaters can agree on is that everyone is speaking too loud and at the same time.

Without using a dictionary or wikipedia, racism is the act of insensitivity towards another race or culture that inflicts pain or suffering. And before readers start changing the channel to FOXNews, this isn't about political correctness; racism has always been around and will continue to do so--political correctness is just a modern movement used to mute expression as a reaction to special interests groups. It's not any good for anyone; normal people are constrained to re-think their thoughts before they say them and the racist people are allowed to hide behind a veil of propriety.

I don't believe in political correctness. I believe that if you want to say something bad and insensitive, you should so that everyone can see what a bigot and ignoramus you are. The use of political correctness as a morality policier means that people will do things for the wrong reasons, making politcal correctness a hollow shell game that will expose attitudes and prejudices thought long eradicated when it one day is not required by society. People should do good things, but they must be allowed to perform them by themselves or else it isn't a good deed or act--it's just a empty gesture that makes going through the day easier.

At this point after mentioning I don't believe in political correctness I take it that I'm supposed to rattle off a couple of South Park quotes to demonstrate that I'm on "your side", but truth be told I don't watch South Park nor any other comedy show that has devolved from generally funny and provoking to a hackneyed mess which is spending too much time preaching and moralizing. This is also not to take me as some sort of aloof divinity above the cares of mortals; I did watch--and enjoy--the South Park movie, after all.

This act of stating Resident Evil 5 is a racist game is most important--not for political correctness--because people, gamers and non-gamers, should see racism for what it is: insensitivity and ignorance. Being a person who is not racist is to be a person that is sensitive and aware; by overcoming one's prejudices and fears you would be contributing to the world at large, let alone one's own capacity to be great.

Also, we should be wary of what racism is not: something that occurs in variations and in small degrees. Someone or something is racist or it is not. Similarily, that's like saying someone is a little bit pregnant, or had caught a little bit of the Ebola virus over the weekend. It's one or the other; what makes this not simple is the fact that no one ever wants to admit to being racist, especially those people who are especially racist.

There are degrees to severity to how deep one's racist beliefs goes--an off-color joke doesn't make you a Ku Klux Klan member, and one racist action doesn't mean you support unequivocal genocide to wipe an entire peoples. However, going back to this definition of racism--that it is an act of insensitivity and ignorance--will inform us that if by your actions you offend at least one person because of their race and culture, well then you sir/madam are racist. It doesn't help the situation that the current society-economic order is full of people who are overly sensitive, leading back to that facade of political correctness that still persists. While this may seem excessive to be responsible for all one's actions and words, really it's not. You, being you, control yourself and do actions and say words; no one else is responsible. This means that you should believe in your words and actions, else your words and actions have little significance.

Let's take it to a common example, one we've all experienced. You're in a group of people and someone makes a racist comment that makes one person in the group uncomfortable. Is this racist? Being a subjective concept, all it takes is for all the people to deny that it happened for it to be "non-racist" for these individuals; if someone objects, this racist act can be passed off as "just a joke" or "just a little racist, but not really". However, these opinions mean little to the individual who became upset not because it broke the order of a "politically correct" world or was morally wrong but because it touched upon something inside of them. That's racism; it's ugly and no one likes it but it's that giant invisable elephant that no one wants to point out. By being silent in this situation is to tacitly condone this type of behavior, and by agreeing that someone/thing isn't racist when it certainly is makes for an act just as bad as the original transgression.

Racism is real; anyone is capable of racism. I realize that talking about it in this way is like getting people to wake to to the invisable cage that's right in front of their eyes, but that's what it is. Many Americans don't identify with being racist because they consider their country the "land of the free" and that racial problems are a thing of the past, and being racist connotes a connection to racial segregation and lynching. However, if you are being insensitive and ignorant towards another race or culture, what else is it called? There aren't two words for racism, and "a little bit racist" simple does not suffice.

Miley Cyrus chink-eye incident? Racist. Relative importance in the grand scheme of things? Not big, as neither is blink-and-you'll-miss-her Miley Cyrus and her Myspace photos. Significance to her fans? None, as this PR blunder that has the potential to offend over one billion people can be passed off as the indiscretion of a young girl who just doesn't know any better.

Resident Evil 5 is different, Capcom should have known better but just didn't. Japan has a different racial balance than the United States, which is a country split into white and black segments of society. Resident Evil 5 could never have been made in the United States, but Japan lacks the charged racial animosity of the USA's checkered past; that so, Japan likely doesn't construe Resident Evil 5 as a racist piece of art, but then that just shows the rest of the world the kind of insensitivity and ignorance Japanese will hold for other cultures.

Resident Evil 5 is racist on many levels; it's actually a shame because it is a fun game. Much of the criticisms deflected by video gamers have been with pointing out Resident Evil 4 wasn't labelled racist with its depiction of Spanish zombies, and also that Resident Evil is a game where you shoot zombies, and in this case Resident Evil 5 is a game where you shoot zombies that happen to be African because the game occurs in Africa. These are all pretty weak arguments coming from a community that emphatically states that "video games are art" except in cases like these which prove to be inconvenient in which case it is stated "lol its just a game don't take it so seriously".

With these justifications in check many gamers set their conscience at ease and can get back to shooting, punching and stabbing Africans (who are zombies, let's not forget that). Despite the status of video games being works of art that can convey complex themes and concepts as well as the growing use of high end technology to render highly detailed graphics, video games like Resident Evil 5 have remained simplistic and the rejection of racism in this game keeps in line with this thinking. This is because thinking only ruins fun; if one were to question the depiction of Africans in this game the game play would suffer from your pondering. Video games need constant interaction with the gamer to keep fun and immersion high, but these interaction are small and superficial compared to, say "Guernica" by Picasso, a painting that you can only "look" at.

Resident Evil 5 is racist in many ways, most above all it is racist in terms of cultural appropriation. Leaving the dictionary behind along with the pipe and cardigan vest sweater, cultural appropriation is taking the elements of another culture and exploiting it for your own gain and personal use. A famous example of this is the use of "blackface" in vaudeville whereby white entertainers pretend to be black singers by adopting make-up that exaggerated the facial features of blacks. A more recent and hilarious example would be the prevalance of "wiggers", white teenagers who are so infused into black urban hip hop culture that they look and act black and fool nobody.

Resident Evil 5 is guilty of cultural appropriation all throughout the game. Africa (and whatever fictional country of Endovia Resident Evil 5 takes place in) is only a backdrop to place this current iteration of the franchise. Much like traditional James Bond movie of old, Resident Evil 5 simply uses Africa as a tool to bolster exotism and wonder. For example, the city environment is doubtlessly well researched and rendered beautifully for an ugly, downtrodden slum. However, zombies aside, we never learn about these Africans and why they are so poor; by not answering these question Resident Evil 5 propagates stereotypes of poor Africans who can't help themselves until the presence of a foreign power come to help them.

Comparisons from this game to "Black Hawk Down" (2001) are apt because both video game and movie are content to portraying a single point of view that is at odds with the culture it appropiates to convey an enjoyable experience. Black Hawk Down is a movie based on facts--all from the US soldiers that took part in the fighting. It's a great movie to discuss issues of honor amongst men and courage, but not a great movie to discuss questions like why the US was there in the first place, why wasn't an alternative plan pursued to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and why was the local Somali populace so angry and militant against the US troops. Black Hawk Down is an excellent and action packed movie of a humongous military blunder that killed so many and cost so much; this type of portrayal is in line with the idolizing of American failures into American heros, like General Custer's last stand or Apollo 13's failed attempt to reach the moon.

This cultural appropriation can be seen in the "Marshland" level. Using a flat-bottomed boat, the protagonists navigate through a marsh to various village, upon which are beset by African zombies. What makes this culturally offensive is that these African zombies are dressed up in tribal warrior gear; the move to define these enemies as evil and different from the heroes is to use their culture to highlight this difference. African culture, though by no means homogenous, is used not to promote or explore itself but rather just as a means to convey the end goal of a exotic, fun experience. Perhaps Africans do put on war paint and war masks and, to this day, still fight with spears and arrows; but when another culture steps in and portray Africans in this light it reeks of insensitivity and ignorance. It's no wonder that Capcom officials were surprised at the controversy; it seemed before the first trailers were released for Resident Evil 5 no Capcom employee had ever met or talked to a black person (refering to Ngai Croal's quote).

This cultural appropriation could have been stemmed if Capcom were willing to let us sympathize with the African natives there; a very effective way to do that would be to provide subtitles for the language that they speak in the game (Swahili? Endovian?) Nevertheless, not doing so has effectively pushed the image of African people ever further into the "other", or the "unknown". In that case, we have mobs of mindless African zombies who possess some intelligence and culture that is never made availible to us. As authentic as the language may be, the video game only allows us to shoot them and never ask any questions.

Africa is portrayed as a world of poor Africans who can't take care of themselves. Africa itself is portrayed as a lush virginal paradise just waiting for prospective exploiters. The game currency is bolstered by jewels you will find just lying on the floor or on cave walls and ceilings. Vast secret underground lost villages exist to be discovered and plundered of treasure and gold. The two different worlds of Africa--the poor people and the rich environment--don't make sense together and seem to imply that Africa is a world waiting for Westerners to come and use it to its full potential, something native people there can't seem to do.

Another racist issue in Resident Evil 5 is the use of imagery and issues that are still connected to racism and other problems. The imagery of a rampaging, savage mob of Africans is problematic because it was used not too long ago polarize Africans and legitimize entertainment and serve as arguments from anything from the slave trade to racial segregation. Any person living in the world today knows that Africa as a continent has suffered under Western colonialism; the image of a mob of African zombies does tie in with this checkered past. Furthermore, the theme of a virus running rampant throughout the continent of Africa isn't fictional, it's real and it's called AIDS. If its not called that it's called Ebola; these are just two of many viruses that threaten the continent. Running around and shooting people in the head trivializes the struggle going on there. Further inflammatory material to the problem is that not one infected person is saved from their illness, nor is any attempt made to do so. If you become a zombie the prescription is a bullet to the head, something sick people in Africa too poor to buy a PS3 don't need to hear.

It doesn't stop there; while its great to have many arguments to support your thesis, after a while it's like beating a dead sacrificed goat. Chris Redfield's B.S.A.A. partner is Sheva Alomar, a native of Africa born to African parents who enlists in the B.S.A.A. to avenge her parents and her countrymen (for the last time, I don't know the name of the fictional country this takes place in. Kijuju? Endovia?) Perhaps in a move to de-emphasize the game's "great white hunter" bias, Alomar is presented as an African and a hero to show balance to the games's depiction of Africans. The problem with Sheva Alomar is that she doesn't look or sound African. If she really is a black person, then she has to be the whitest black person God rolled up God's sleeve to make on the sixth day. Alomar is a black woman with very light, fine skin, straight hair and a tiny nose. She doesn't dress like any African in the game. Besides speaking perfect British English, she never speaks any African dialect. If Alomar is truly indeed black, then she is designed to be beautiful in terms of white beauty, not black beauty. She is more like Chris Redfield than any of the countrymen she apparent sympathizes with.

By far, the biggest case of cultural appropriation is the second unlockable Sheva Alomar outfit. After shooting 30 B.S.A.A. emblems, the player is rewarded with an Alomar outfit that consists of a tiger print bikini and tribal war paint. This is nothing more than the use of sex as a reward and simplifying African culture to primitive savages stereotyped for their sexual prowess. I'll say it another way if you don't get it: rewarding a player with the Sheva tribal outfit is to reward the player with sex and the subjugation of another culture. Honestly, if you have to ask why such imagery is racist and could possibly be insensitive to any African alive today you probably don't understand other people exist in the world besides you.

It seems troublesome that a video game so advanced in technology be so backwards in cultural awareness, but then it's telling that this type of imagery could exist in video games but could not possibly exist in films or television. And, it still doesn't stop there. No, because Josh Stone, Delta Team captain and the only other "good" African survivor left to represent all of Africa, is really nothing more than a subserviant house negro. Initially a helpful character that saves the protagonists, Stone eventually devoles into the errand boy who gets to have no fun but just pilot boats and helicopters and open doors (his figurine depicts him at his iconic best: wide eyed, afraid, and behind a computer console). While this type of supporting character is required to let the protagonist be the hero (like Tom Arnold's character in "True Lies" (1994)), this further doesn't paint Africans in a positive light; instead they are passive people waiting for instructions from Westerns to tell them what to do.

The goal of repeatedly stating and ultimately proving Resident Evil 5 is not to say that it's a bad game, though is quite a simple one; instead the idea to have gamers take a long look at this game and find that fundamental design concepts in this game are racist, and are issues that need to be avoided or addressed in future similarly themed games.

You don't have to be a racist to enjoy this game, but it helps.

Review of game play in point form:

* on Veteran level provides a fun challenge (so long as you don't "farm" ammunition on earlier stages)
* great graphics and cutscenes, breasts and asses are depicted hyper-realistically
* Chris Redfield punching a rock has to be the best videogame climax in years
* "COME ON! COME ON! COME ON! COME ON!"--two player co-op is fun and ensures replayability

* racist but blissfully self-unaware
* simplistic game play that has you running around in circles avoiding an enemy with no discernable strategic skills and breaking the most well rendered crates in Resident Evil history
* too easy, no suspense, predictable story
* will serve as the KKK's most favorite video game for some time to come
* ridiculous names like "Wesker" and "S.T.A.R.S." prove Resident Evil has a mindset that is stuck 10 years in the past

Played to completion on Veteran mode only on Xbox 360

Rating: 1 and a half stars out of 3 - worth experiencing to decide the racism issue yourself

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Article: The Failure of the Video Game Review - A Case Study of Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad

Wanton sex appeal; crass exploitation; exploding blood and gore and violence that no mop and bucket could possibly clean up: this recipe, if not for a successful video game, at least would make for one that would pass your time well—especially one that is innovative with depth to game play, challenging and actually fun to play. However, if you read and believe everything you read in video game journalism you may be missing out on a worth while game; from what it appears also missing out maybe the video game journalists who believe their own bad press.

Oneechanbara: vorteX (2006), made by Tamsoft and published by D3, is a budget video game based on the long running Oneechanbara series (the English version is written with one less "e"). Having debuted to Japanese gamers on the budget "Simple 2000" series on the Playstation 2, the franchise has since crossed platforms onto the Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii and cell phones. This popularity spawned a live action motion picture, "OneeChanBara: The Movie" (2008) starring celebrity actresses and idols Eri Otoguro, Chise Nakamura and Manami Hashimoto that was released in Japan and screened at the New York Asian Film Festival. Oneechanbara: vorteX sold so well in Japan that it placed 32nd in the top 50 lifetime domestic sales on the Xbox 360 in 2007, selling better than such games as Call of Duty 3 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted. ( This is a successful video game in a popular franchise that has sold well in Japan; it should then be logical to think such success would carry over for the 2009 United States re-release.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad, the title for its US and European release, was received very poorly from video game critics; the aggregate critic score on Metacritic (based on 33 reviews) is 39 out of 100, a low and rare score. Despite the success of the game in its native Japan, Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad was generally criticized for its bad production involving graphics and sound, nonsensical story, crass sexual exploitation, repetitive game play and a minimal presentation that had no tutorials or other explanations of game play. A gross oversight on the part of publisher D3, this lack of polish on the Western re-release--a game in-waiting for 3 years--ensured the long running Oneechanbara franchise would not enjoy the same success as it did back in Japan.

However, this lack of presentation and tutorials also had another unexpected result: based on playing the game and the lack of information it gave them, many video game reviews made statements that simply weren’t true. Determined to let a lack of information set the bar on a review full of opinions, certain journalists braved forging ahead without bothering to get their facts straight. Judging from their comments it seems that many of these reviewers simply played through Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad once quickly in order to write their review without learning about what this game can offer them.

To begin:

“But while you will need to mix up your attacks for some enemies, for the most part you can just jam on buttons indiscriminately without too much worry.”
“Every attempt to leave the tedium of button mashing behind results in pure stupidity.”
- Kevin VanOrd, Gamespot (;read-review)

Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad is a button-masher, an action video game that is dependent upon pressing buttons quickly and often, but it isn’t a mindless button-masher as described by Mr. Van Ord. Instead, this is a button-masher with style. In an interesting case where style is more important than substance, Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad is a game that rewards the player for being stylish rather than opting to go the easy route, say like to plod mindlessly through the game pressing attack indiscrimminately like Mr. VanOrd appears to have done. This game does for beat em' ups what Project Gotham Racing has done to the racing genre and what The Club did for first-person shooters.

“This usually consists of beating one of three attack buttons, and while it’s possible to chain together combos – all with a rating, as seen in countless action games – most foes are so easy to defeat that there's very little reason to ever learn a sequence by heart.” – Simon Miller, 360 Magazine

In the case of Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad the style is all about timing and not about learning complex button procedures like Street Fighter II or even contemporaries like Devil May Cry or God of War. Called a “Cool Combo”, this is performed by precisely pressing attack the very moment your first attack lands; doing so will cause a large white “x” to flash on the screen, the resultant sound effect, the rumble pack to activate—in other words, you can’t miss it unless you are blind, deaf and aren't touching the game controller. Performing a Cool Combo will exact double damage and lead to a drop of larger experience orbs, but they aren’t easy to pull off. Your character in the beginning will have at most a three hit combo, and with a Cool Combo can extend this to four. However, if you upgrade Aya’s combo meter to its maximum you will be able to perform a room clearing twelve hit combo; with double sword style this can be raised to an astounding seventeen--astounding because each of these hits must be pulled off with split second accuracy and then be repeated for each time. Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad has the zombie perfectly cast as the enemy because the game is not about how difficult the foe is but rather how stylish you can pull off your moves. While there are several different moves to learn, the Cool Combo is the most important and is the essence of game play.

“This is one of those games that hopes to sell itself to gamers based solely on the premise... There is little in the way of substance or compelling gameplay to back up this concept.” – Eric Brudvig, IGN

As stated, this is not an integral component to finishing this game; one could mash their way mindlessly through the game, be done in three or so hours and write a quick review. However, once the Cool Combo is learned and accessible, it becomes a self-fulfilling goal of the player. Similar to playing Star Wars Arcade (1983), destroying the Death Star is end goal of each chapter but is not as fulfilling a goal as shooting down all the laser turrets on towers on the second stage. In fact, in could be said that the real game of Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad is the challenge of the player besting himself, trying to outdo himself by continually performing successful Cool Combos in succession; this game specifically targets the issue of bad artificial intelligence, common in many video games, by deliberately taking the focus off it.

“It does indeed transpire the combat system is much more complex than it appears. There are upward slashes, jumping kicks, taunts, counter attacks and all manner of other moves to perfect... [In the game’s manual it] is explained over the course of three pages, seven paragraphs and 650 words. Though from what I can tell it could be summarised as "keep pressing X ". - Ellie Gibson, Eurogamer

The combat system in Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad is surprisingly deep for a beat em’ game; zombies can be dispatched in any number of creative ways. While the Cool Combo is the staple in this formula, each character branches off into their own specializations. Aya has two sword styles that can be upgraded to a maximum eleven hits on the single sword and seventeen hits on dual. Saki specializes in martial arts where she can wrestle with various zombies; Saki can perform suplexes, tear off arms and decapitate zombies with her knee. Annna has a choice between two weapon sets and can perform such stylish maneuvers as shooting from the floor and with arms akimbo, both in front and behind as well as to each side. As a matter of fact, a PDF file that details the movesets, a walkthrough and a FAQ of Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad comes in at 83 pages. Each page doesn’t describe a special move as “keep pressing x”.

“A rigid camera means you are often slashing or shooting blind, unable to see most of the enemies attacking you.” - Scott Alan Mariott, (

“Its level of difficulty is so cheap, the camera so bad, and the controls so unresponsive that the game's poor quality comes immediately into focus.”
-Kevin VanOrd, Gamespot(;read-review

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad features a lock-on camera that allows you to specifically target one enemy at a time. By pressing the right bumper, a green arrow will target an enemy that will flash green as well; pressing down on the left thumbstick will allow you to shift between the enemy of your choosing. This is the same type of z-targeting featured in “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” (1998) that allowed circle strafing around enemies and had the camera locked on such that both you and your chosen opponent are on screen and centered at all times. Whilst locked on in Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad and jumping to the left or right, your character will perform cartwheels to elude enemy attacks; if an attack is dodged at the last moment a slow motion "bullet time" will occur, allowing you to perform greater damage.

Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad features the tightest controls you’ll find in any game. The heroes in Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad don’t conform to the natural laws of physics, thereby able to stop on a dime and change directions or are able to move basically as quickly as you can control them. The greatest testament to the responsive controls is that the game will perform each and every of your button presses; if you were to press attack or jump one too many times, this game will perform that action. Therefore, an on screen character that “spazzes out” and is hard to control is indicative of a player that simply mashes the buttons without any thought and not of controls that are unresponsive; if anything, the controls in this game are too responsive.

“Then there's Rampage Mode, which characters enter when they are totally covered in blood. It makes them move twice as fast and deliver double the damage. Great, except they also take double the damage, and their health meter drains constantly. Which makes it one of the more rubbish berserker modes ever invented,” - Ellie Gibson, Eurogamer

All the points Ms. Gibson makes about Rampage Mode are true, but she leaves many points out. Throughout the game as the two half-sisters slaughter zombies and accumulate the resultant red orbs their “Splatter Meter” rises. When full, the hero will enter Rampage Mode and have the abilities of moving twice as fast and dealing double the damage but also have the disadvantages of taking double the damage and a persistently draining life bar. These disadvantages can be offset by the use of strategy. The red orbs that formerly added to the splatter bar now will contribute to the character’s health. In this fashion, game play resembles arcade-style action and becomes exciting race against time to kill more zombies and harvest more red orbs before your life bar drains and your character suffers major damage.

To add to the strategy, hearts obtained from mud zombies with a technique called “pulling hearts” can be used to heal a character in Rampage Mode, and as these mud zombies are more prevalent than rare healing crystals it would be worth it to keep a character in Rampage Mode. In fact, with two available characters for play, a strategic move would be to leave one character in Rampage Mode and one in normal and switch between them as the situation required. This blend of strategy and arcade action makes it, arguably, one of the best berserker modes ever invented.

“Some other modes add replay value, but they don't improve the game's quality; since the title isn't worth playing the first time, any replay value is wasted.” - - Robert Verbruggin, Cheat code central

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad features an upgrade system where one of four statistics can be increased: Combo, Power, Vitality and Reach. (in the case of Annna Reach is substituted with Gun). Experience is gained by collecting yellow orbs from fallen enemies. Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad differs from other third-person action titles like the Devil May Cry series and the God of War series because there are no purchasable moves; this applies to the sword-slinging half-sisters Aya and Saki but not to the gun-toting Annna. Instead, maxing out a combo bar will add one more hit to the existing combo; basically this means to max out the entire Combo stat lots of experience must be gained, thus ensuring several playthroughs—and defining one single playthrough as missing out on a lot of the experience. This may seem like a cheap way to encourage gamers to replay an inferior product, but it does take a lot of practical experience to pull off a “Cool Combo”—especially one that ultimately adds up to a room-clearing twelve hits on single sword and an astonishing seventeen on dual swords for Aya. The technique of completing “Cool Combos” is necessary for defeating Blood Mist zombies and acquiring bracelets that can change your character status and gameplay greatly, like doubling yellow experience orbs or preventing your “Splatter Meter” from growing permanently.

There are a great number of other features that won’t need further explaining: sword fatigue that requires regular cleaning else the blade may get stuck in an enemy; a three tier “Ecstasy” meter in which successive successful attacks culmulate in an invincible attack, independent of the “Splatter” meter; strategizing character switching between their specific attacks as well as being able to regain some lost health; a Practice mode to learn and rehearse special moves and combos; and a Quest mode in which completing certain tasks items are unlocked for use in Dress Up mode, a mode where the player can dress the heroes in different clothes. What is important is not whether or not these modes, combos and game play are valuable assets to this game but rather the fact that many reviewers did not make any mention of them, specific or otherwise, but were still compelled to judge these games as journalists.

It’s very clear that D3 was lazy and released a video game that is largely incomplete despite having three years since the first time it was released; it appears the only change made to the Western release are adding subtitles to the cut scenes and translating the game menu and story script to English. For such little effort expended it looks like their business plan of not making any money on a product they didn’t spend much on succeeded. However, it is also clear that many video game journalists were content with their first impressions and didn’t bother to investigate further into a video game many of them considered not worthy of their time. By doing so they let their personal opinions and genre preferences get in the way of being able to report faithfully on a topic. Obviously, any of these video game reviewers can state that they judged and criticized a game specifically with the material at hand, just as the common consumer would do with purchasing Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad from any video game retail store. After all, this is the final product D3 released for sale and consumption.

Nonetheless, a video game journalist is not the average consumer. A level of professionalism should be required for a video game journalist that shows expertise and impartiality and an impetus to provide for the truth; after all, a journalist is someone who contributes to the public good. Just as we would demand that a video game in the beat em’ up genre should be reviewed by someone knowledgeable in the subject, so should we demand that a video game should be reviewed in context to previous games in the franchise, similar games in the genre, and also to what the video game is trying to achieve: not every game is trying to be Halo or Gears of War; Katamari Damacy, Braid and Portal are all games with limited resources that make due with what they have successfully, but also don’t make any apologies for looking or sounding any better nor being longer.

Some journalists found time to use an internet search engine and provide some background information on the game. While information is scarce on Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad, information like the IGN pdf FAQ, written by Leonard D. Lyons III and of undeterminable date of origin, do exist as long as you search for it. While searching for answers to questions that some would consider not worth asking may seem beyond the call of duty for a video game review, one video game journalist did just that.

Andy Eddy of Team Xbox gave Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad a 2.7 out of 10. While this does not stray from the average Metacritic score, what is out of the ordinary is the reaction Mr. Eddy had with a game that had “incomplete information”; frustrated that the video game and the manual did not explain the game to him well enough, Mr. Eddy took it upon himself to find out the truth. By asking a co-worker with previous Oneechanbara experience and through other means, Mr. Eddy was able to find out about the game play (Cool Combos) and the various modes (Quest, Practice, Free, Story) and other unrevealed information. Mr. Eddy was ultimately disappointed and called Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad “an incomplete game”. He would do what no one else would care to do: he based his opinion on facts that he investigated when no facts were readily available.

While Mr. Eddy’s final assessment isn’t that different from that of his peers, what is different is the weight of his opinion, having done the legwork to investigate a game that proved difficult to appreciate. And though the game proved to be of not suitable quality to Mr. Eddy, the game was suitable enough for Mr. Eddy to investigate, proving that good journalism is a deed in and of itself. While opinions are not fact and can’t be right or wrong, proven or otherwise, what can be wrong is the lazy attitude towards journalism and the assertion of opinions of fact when no research is undertaken to support arguments. While video game reviewing doesn’t safeguard lives like flying an commercial airline or performing brain surgery, it is journalism and journalism is, basically, telling the truth for the sake of the truth—even if that truth is the journalist saying, “I don’t know.”

As objective as truth is, it is rather subjective. Specifically, truth is whatever people perceive it as. So if enough people will follow a certain type of thinking, opinion becomes belief—and if unchallenged—belief becomes fact. So if video gamers persist in giving the authority of opinion to an elite few who remain unaccounted for then it is no wonder why these same gamers who also persist in complaining so loudly about small grievances in video games (like the current controversy with Resident Evil 5’s DLC) will find themselves last to blame.


1) Oneechanbara refers to the Japanese name of the budget D3 video game franchise of the same name that stars half-sisters Aya and Saki in revealing sexy clothes and features intense violence and gore. “Oneechanbara” is a Japanese pun called a “pillow word” that features two words combined together: “oneechan” is sister and “chanbara” is sword, so together “oneechanbara” means “sister sword” or “sword-fighting sisters” or “sister sword fight”.

2) “Onechanbara” refers to the US release of “Oneechanbara: vorteX” which occurred three years after the Japanese release, and is specifically missing an “e” in its title which can be seen in box-art, press releases and in-game. A similar typo exists for the third main character, “Annna”, whose name is written specifically with three “n’s”.

3) Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad is not the first western release of the Oneechanbara franchise. The Oneechanbara and the Oneechanploo were released in Europe by 505 Game Street as Zombie Zone and Zombie Hunters in 2005. Both games were not released in the US.

4) OneeChanBara: the Movie aka Chanbara Beauty follows the characters and story of the video game franchise with some liberties; however, all three main characters – Aya, Saki, and Reiko – all appear dressed in the exact same costume as in the video game: a bikini with a cowboy hat and feather boa, a school girl’s uniform and a black leather motorcycle jumpsuit.


IGN, Eric Brudvig, Feb 17, 2009; 30/100
This is one of those games that hopes to sell itself to gamers based solely on the premise... There is little in the way of substance or compelling gameplay to back up this concept.
Muddy controls, an annoying camera, ugly graphics, repetitive level design, little variation from one stage to the next, and an awful story are just the beginnings of the problems found here. Compared to today's sophisticated games, Onechanbara feels -- and looks -- like a dinosaur.
Even so, small snippets of the visuals can't fully convey how monstrously ugly this game is. It looks like a PS2 game blown up into HD, and a budget PS2 game at that.
There are simply too many other better options out there to waste time with this mess.

Gamespot, Kevin VanOrd, Feb 13, 2009; 25/100;read-review
But while you will need to mix up your attacks for some enemies, for the most part you can just jam on buttons indiscriminately without too much worry.
Every attempt to leave the tedium of button mashing behind results in pure stupidity.
Its level of difficulty is so cheap, the camera so bad, and the controls so unresponsive that the game's poor quality comes immediately into focus.
On normal difficulty, the early levels aren't just easy--they're yawners, and you'll spend most of your time pounding on the X button while searching for keys to open new areas. Even though it seems like there’s a lot of variety, there isn’t, because all the different options really just boil down to hammering on buttons.

Gamepro, Heather Barton, Feb 10, 2009; 1 star/5 stars
As I approached the first boss (who resembled some sort of sloppy tumor) I was looking forward to a life-draining challenge, yet was able to button mash the monster to hell with nothing more than a scratch on my nubile, under-aged body. Each boss battle after that mirrored that experience: hack, slash, repeat.
Running around aimlessly chapter to chapter decimating zombies with little to no effort…I survived the entire game without coming close to dying even once, all while button mashing.

Eurogamer, Ellie Gibson, mar 5 2009 30/100
Then there's Rampage Mode, which characters enter when they are totally covered in blood. It makes them move twice as fast and deliver double the damage. Great, except they also take double the damage, and their health meter drains constantly. Which makes it one of the more rubbish berserker modes ever invented,
It does indeed transpire the combat system is much more complex than it appears. There are upward slashes, jumping kicks, taunts, counter attacks and all manner of other moves to perfect... is explained over the course of three pages, seven paragraphs and 650 words. Though from what I can tell it could be summarised as "keep pressing X ".
This game looks and plays like it was made 15 years ago, and fans of the genre have had much better titles to choose from since then.
There's nothing wrong with a good, solid hackandslasher that doesn't pretend to be anything else. But this game is fundamentally flawed, from the daft control system to the bizarre difficulty curve to the appalling presentation., Scott Alan Mariott
A rigid camera means you are often slashing or shooting blind, unable to see most of the enemies attacking you.

ZT, Professor Chaos
You can just run past most of them, unless you want to level up your character which I doubt you will really want to do.

Cheat code central, Robert verbruggin
Some other modes add replay value, but they don't improve the game's quality; since the title isn't worth playing the first time, any replay value is wasted.

360 magazine, Simon Miller
This usually consists of beating one of three attack buttons, and while it’s possible to chain together combos – all with a rating, as seen in countless action games – most foes are so easy to defeat that there’s very little reason to ever learn a sequence by heart.

Team Xbox, Andy Eddy
Onechanbara is also a game of incomplete information. Unfortunately, unlike poker, it shouldn’t be an integral part of the game and it certainly doesn’t improve the enjoyment you should get from playing a video game.

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