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by Nick Dinicola

15 Jan 2010

Role-playing games have changed greatly over the years. They’ve become more accessible, more forgiving, and more popular. One of the more radical changes to the genre has been the elimination of random battles. In most modern RPGs, players can see their enemies, monsters exist in the actual game world instead of an imaginary battlefield, and the genre is better for it. In retrospect, the random battle was a terrible mechanic, frustrating, relentless, and ever-present; they were a chore. So, it’s surprising that they play such a major role in Dragon Age: Origins, many gamers’ pick for the best RPG of 2009. Instead of just removing this annoying mechanic, Dragon Age: Origins twists it into something new and better, something that improves the RPG experience rather than breaking it.

Random battles never happen when you’re in control of your character, only on the world map. You get your first look at the world map a few hours into the game. It’s a literal map, with places of interest highlighted, and when you select a destination, a trail of blood droplets fall onto the paper that mark your progress across the country. This is the only time a random battle can occur: the drops stop, you hear swords clash, and you enter the battlefield. By confining these fights to the world map, Dragon Age ensures that they never become the annoying interruption that most people remember. They only happen when we’re inactive, when we’re watching instead of playing. This also encourages exploration, since we’re free to run around any environment as much as we like without fearing a constant barrage of unseen enemies.

by G. Christopher Williams

13 Jan 2010

I just ate a giant baby with my hair.

Much like Devil May Cry in gameplay and aesthetics, Bayonetta is unrelentingly committed to sex, death, and absurdity.

The game immediately begins with an epilogue sequence in which Bayonetta and her rival plummet for miles above the earth standing atop the face of a collapsed clock tower.  Oh, and they are fighting angels.  Oh, and a narrator is providing background for the forthcoming plot as the player is thrust into this frenzied battle.  If it seems like the finer points of a description of a near future alternate world are likely to get lost in this sensory chaos, that is kind of the point.  Also like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta is rarely interested in much beyond magnificently realized spectacle.  The game begins with a fall (as many stories of biblical proportion do).  It is the only relevant detail to recognize (the spectacle of falling itself), and it is recognized BIG.

by L.B. Jeffries

12 Jan 2010

One of the most popular styles of 2009 has been cel-shading, which is in stark contrast to the influx of hyper-realistic games that marked 2007 and 2008 when people wanted to show off their console’s hardware. There are a lot of reasons to opt for cel-shading. Since games are so often populated with freakish monsters and giant super soldiers, depicting them in realistic graphics can be a bit awkward. You just end up having a bunch of sticky looking critters with muddy, grey skin. Another problem is that the fantasy elements of most games automatically seem unrealistic. Take the cast of Gears of War 2, their enormous size and armor just seem out of place once you slap a realistic head onto them. Supernatural powers that many characters use are also visually out of place once the visuals approach a realistic range. Finally, all of those hyper-realistic games are extremely expensive to make. Cel-shading does come with its own pros & cons, however, precisely because of its retreat back of its stylized nature.

Establishing what exactly cel-shading is helps here. While a game like Crackdown’s thick lines and textures are gorgeous, it is not cel-shading. All art directors take into account how they want an engine to draw a line wherever an object’s borders detect an edge in the game. A very thick line like in Crackdown makes the avatar bolder. Your eyes follow its movement more than you do in a game like GTA IV where the line is very thin. Inside those lines though, the rendering is still rich and textured. The mark of cel shading is to simplify the textures of the object. Wikipedia explains this key element about the aesthetic, “Where cel-shading differs from conventional rendering is in its use of non-photorealistic lighting. Conventional (smooth) lighting values are calculated for each pixel and then mapped to a small number of discrete shades to create the characteristic flat look—where the shadows and highlights appear more like blocks of color rather than mixed in a smooth way.” A post over at Lost Garden calls this visual effect a “neo-retro art” which favors symbolism, efficiency, and style over realism. A good example would be Mario’s avatar in Super Mario Galaxy, which is built out of solid colors and round shapes to create a cartoon effect. With the increased processing power in consoles other then the Wii, this effect becomes even more pronounced by creating blended hues. A comparison between the new Prince of Persia and the classic FPS XIII by Daniel Primed shows the difference once more, processing power is leveraged for the style. Solid, single color shadows and tones like in XIII or Super Mario Galaxy give way to blurred hues to create a water color effect.

The question that this raises is what effect does this aesthetic have on the overall game experience? Unlike a cartoon or comic book, there is no set camera angle in a video game. There is no set perspective. A player might be approaching a doorway from the center or the far right while they’re looking the other direction, etc. With this in mind, the principles of architecture are more useful than just looking at cinematography or story-boards. A book on the basics of how we perceive buildings, Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, offers some insights. Building materials look heavy to us based on their appearance. Put another way, you don’t have to pick up a brick to understand that it’s heavy. Think about the difference between a rough concrete slab and one made out of wood. The concrete is grainier, rougher on the edges, and a dull grey color that all give it a heavy appearance. The wood looks lighter because of its coloring and the smooth grains on the face of the board. Look around the room that you’re in right now. Look at the walls. Part of the reason that you wallpaper or paint over a wall is to lighten the atmosphere by changing the color of the building material. How heavy something looks in a game is defined in part by how we feel when looking at it.

The consequence of cel shading then is that it gives everything an airy, physically light feeling because there is generally a more smooth texture and lighting in the game. Multiple light sources are often present and there are rarely absolute dark tones in the scenery. Going back to Gears of War 2 for a moment, you can see this in action when you ask someone which character looks heavier: the Prince or Marcus? It’s an important distinction to make when seeing what art style a game is choosing because cel shading shouldn’t be an aesthetic choice a game uses arbitrarily. It makes sense for Prince of Persia or Super Mario Galaxy to use it because it fits the theme of jumping on walls and doing wild acrobatics by making everything feel lighter. A game about shooting and combat might want to opt for a grittier look. A game like Borderlands obviously proves a shooter can be fun with cel shading, but then again, the tone of the game is mostly light hearted. There’s also Killer 7, which uses cel shading to create a great sense of stylized violence and darkness. Some games will even combine the two visual aesthetics, like Uncharted 2 when it moves between platforming and combat. The platform heavy sections will usually work around one or two very complex, richly textured centerpieces that you focus and move around on while having much lighter colored and simplified textures for walls and embankments. The characters like Chloe or Drake are all richly textured in the face and animation (along with those creepy eyes), but their clothing has a single-hue and is often brightly lit whenever you’re making a jump. The purpose remains the same: the avatar has to look like it can make the leap.

by Nick Dinicola

8 Jan 2010

Some months ago I started playing Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. One of the factions gave me an open-ended mission to destroy any billboards I found, so whenever I was in a tank, I made a conscious effort to keep my eyes out for any signs still standing. Throughout my hunt, two recurring billboards caught my attention: One was advertising the newest season of South Park complete with day and time, the other was advertising the recently released movie 9. It was jarring to see the real world infringing on the game world in such a blatant way. This is, of course, an inevitability of in-game advertising, but two recent games have taken a different approach to this idea. Assassin’s Creed 2 and Dragon Age advertise themselves, or more specifically, they advertise their future/current downloadable content.

by G. Christopher Williams

6 Jan 2010

I sometimes wonder if the Hayes Code and the FCC has led us to believe that sex never occurred before the advent of color.  Much like the film Pleasantville, Pandemic’s new game The Saboteur leans on the conceit of liberation being represented by transforming a black and white world into color.  More specifically and also much like Pleasantville liberation is marked initially by sexual freedom being the most obvious form of liberation.

The game’s opening sequence represents this concept visually as the player is greeted by a bare chested woman in black and white whose darkened form is slowly lit by the glare of stage lights and the camera pans back to takes in her whole hip swinging burlesque performance at La Belle Nuit.  Behind her emerges a backdrop featuring a fully colorized Paris cityscape.  It is, after all, the City of Lights.

The camera continues to pan back revealing a group of drunken Nazis enjoying the view, who are interestingly the only Nazis in the game not programmed to respond with suspicion to Sean Devlin’s (the game’s protagonist) any deviance from normative behavior while on the Paris streets (like climbing a building, drawing a weapon, or lighting a stick of dynamite).  Devlin himself is revealed at the bar and the player is quickly immersed in the first mission of the game, whose goal is to light up and colorize the currently black and white Paris streets by liberating the city from Nazi oppression.

That La Belle Nuit is in the first neighborhood that is colorized, the red-light district, is telegraphed by the stage performance.  The Parisian heart apparently beats to the sexual freedom embraced in its bordellos and strip clubs.  Later missions will also serve to free areas of the city associated with French culture and more traditional arts (like freeing the neighborhoods containing the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower or stopping a book burning occurring beneath the Arc de Triomphe), but the freedom of expression that Nazi rule would stamp out ostensibly begins with this most basic expression of a liberated libido.

However, the game does not necessarily begin as described if the player has not purchased a copy of the game and downloaded a free add-on to the game called “The Midnight Club” or rented a copy of the Xbox version (for example) and purchased this addition to the game for 240 MS points (about $3.00).  A player loading up The Saboteur without the “Nudity” feature on will instead be witness to the same scene, but the stripper will be just barely clad in pasties, which in and of itself seems to have little bearing on the implications of the sequence that I have described above, particularly in terms of the game’s themes and those themes’ relation to the game play.  Additionally, though, a room in La Belle Nuit will be missing, an underground speakeasy featuring additional burlesque dances and a game that allows the player to unlock an additional pimped out ride for the game.

Now I realize that breasts can sell a product, but “The Midnight Club” is an interesting way of selling product as it depends on such a prurient interest on the player’s part in an interesting way. The literal value of “The Midnight Club” is contingent in part on the permanency of ownership.  As I see it, as a marketing device, “The Midnight Club” download suggests a different value than the one implied by the opening cut scene’s thematic purposes.  Indeed, rather than liberate the player, it encourages a very specific action based on the player’s own libidinous propensities: purchase of the game, especially a new copy of the game. 

While one could certainly rent and play The Saboteur and still get the vibe of the game, it seems unlikely that most players interested in the nude sequences are likely to want to purchase a download online if they intend to later turn the game back in to the video store.  Though $3.00 might be the value of temporary virtual nipples (assumedly one would drop a little more on real ones at a real club?).  However, it is probably a cost that is close to doubling the cost of the rental itself. 

Alternately, players looking for a copy of the game on the cheap could purchase it used, but since the code that ships with the game will only allow for a download to a single console itself (and assuming the original owner of the game would have wanted to see pixelated nipples), any used version of the game will be lacking the free version. Thus, once again the value of nudity is a few bucks more.  Making this purchase for $3.00 more sensible practically since the content would be relevant throughout ownership of the disk, but it still might be easier to simply buy the game outright, newly packaged with fresh, free nudity. 

It seems to me then that “The Midnight Club” rather than being a download intended to make some additional money on the basis of fans willing to purchase a game (as most downloadable content seems to exist for the purposes of gathering “a few dollars more”) that instead it might intend to serve as one of the primary basis for sales (as opposed to rentals) to begin with.  It seems an interesting gambit to maximize copies that go directly to the player as a single serve game rather than sitting on the shelf of some video store to be pawed at promiscuously by a heap of players whose money is being thrown at the rental agency rather than at the publisher and developer. 

If such thinking was part of the thinking about the distribution model for “The Midnight Club” (and certainly the club could simply have been included on the disk without the histrionics necessary for downloading the content if the only thought was to protect people from questionable content that they didn’t necessarily want—the club can be turned off in the Options menu simply by selecting Nudity to off), it does raise questions about the thematic or narrative necessity for these sequences at all in The Saboteur.  If the nudity is at all essential to telling the story, shouldn’t it already be there?  Doesn’t this inclusion suggest pure gratuitousness?  Or, does the fact that the pasties covering these characters act to only narrowly alter what is going on in the scene suggest that the scene’s message can be clearly conveyed with obscured nipples or covered up nipples? What purpose then does nudity serve in telling a story?

I recently watched a documentary called Sex and the Cinema in which a variety of directors discussed the purpose of gratuitous sex scenes in movies, suggesting that the best sex scenes serve the additional purpose of speaking to the characters relationships and identities in the story (ironically, I had also just watched Desperado again and had been thinking how the gun fight that follows the sex scene in that film actually speaks more about the relationship between that film’s main characters—all the pushing and shoving and stepping protectively in front of one another done by Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas speak more clearly to how they feel about one another then the dialogue or sexuality in the film—nevertheless, like a sex scene all of this information is communicated by seeing it visually through the bodies of the characters).  If sexuality and sexual images speak in any way to the themes of The Saboteur is the nudity necessary to understand those themes?  If so, are those themes compromised by this sales technique?  It would be interesting to know how the developers feel about the marketing of the game and whether or not it “obscures” their sense of the usefulness or mere gratuity of the scene.

Assuming there is any merit to understanding La Belle Nuit as an expression of the spirit of liberation in the wake of the “colorlessness” of oppression, one way or the other the metanarrative of the game complicates the message of the narrative.  The libertine theme is confused by a marketing campaign depending on a sense that restricted sexual imagery can pay off in the short term at least.

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