Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Mar 5, 2010
We're not players in Heavy Rain so much as we are actors. We're meant to assume the roles of these characters, to think like them, and the controversial controls reflect that desire.

Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer recently played Heavy Rain, and had some interesting criticisms of it:


Heavy Rain situates a system between the player and the game that heavily mediates the player’s experience…It wants to immerse me in a realistic, character-driven story with detailed environments and atmospherics; but it also wants me to remain outside that experience, ever-vigilant for the next quick-response button-press. (Heavy Rain, Brainy Gamer, 24 February 2010)


It’s a common criticism of the game and one that I couldn’t disagree with more.


Tagged as: heavy rain
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Mar 4, 2010

Spoiler Warning: This post gives away a spoiler that’s irrelevant to the story of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh but that is also the game’s most effective moment.


It’s the only time I really remember being scared in a video game. I’ve been startled by demons jumping out of monster closets in Doom 3. I’ve been creeped the hell out by Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I’ve screamed in alarm in Wing Commander while flying through an exploding kilrathi fighter only to slam at full speed into the suddenly revealed side of the freighter that I’m supposed to be escorting. There was that time that I was so angry that I broke my TV. But the only time that I remember being actually, really scared was while playing Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. And now it’s available for cheap and easy download at Good Old Games.


I was living in a tiny, badly lit apartment by the beach (so tiny that when they remodeled the place years later, they turned it into a laundry room). It wasn’t even night-time but rather a hot summer afternoon. I had the blinds drawn though, and the room glowed with that late-day amber light that you usually only find in Southern Gothic horror movies. On my 15 inch monitor, a full motion video horror story was playing out. It included monsters in copier rooms at the office, strained conversations with co-workers, and kinky sex. None of those things were scary at all, and while at the time I thought the actors and writing good enough for the job, this was all low-budget horror flick stuff. The kind of stuff that just doesn’t scare me.


No, the scary parts came from working on the computer. At various points in the game, you in your role as an office worker in his cubicle have to log onto the company system and do some work. The game screen switches from point and click adventure style to a simulation: your computer becomes your character’s computer with e-mail and other office-appropriate functions. Even then it seemed sort of simplified and unwieldy compared to my actual desktop, but it was believable. That believability was key, because it allowed me to suspend that pesky disbelief without even being conscious of it.


The terror came on subtle and simple. Compared to the special effect driven video sequences, I’m sure that it was the cheapest, easiest feature to implement in the game. I didn’t even know for sure what was happening or indeed that anything was happening at all. It was a flickering in the corner of my eye, a movement at the top right of the screen. It made me nervous, but I had my mind on other things (plot things, things I don’t remember at all now). As my disquiet grew, the weirdness couldn’t be ignored. I stopped everything else and just stared at that corner of the screen. I felt self-conscious about it because it might have been nothing at all, just a trick of the afternoon light or a defect in my old monitor. And then it flashed for less than a second, a single word. Maybe it was two. Memory fails me because there would be more of them, but it was something along the lines of “Murder.” It really, actually scared me.


The game had built up to this moment well with my character’s psychological state already seriously in question. Something bad was going on, but I didn’t know what it was. Then, in that moment, that flash of a single word, the game changed my reality. My brain had accepted the game’s computer interface as an analog experience to my own desktop. It was expecting creepy e-mails and weird images in response to mouse clicks. It wasn’t ready for the supposedly stable elements of my user interface to start urging me towards homicide. Ahh, how I treasure that moment.


Now you can have it too, except I’ve ruined it for you. I did put that spoiler warning up top (although I might’ve undersold it). I’m torn about buying A Puzzle of Flesh again. I think that it’s great that it is available, but I’m pretty sure that playing it now would ruin those memories. We’ll see, but if anyone out there does play it now for the first time, I’d love to know if it holds up even a little bit. Anyone else have some outstanding scary moments from video games?


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Mar 3, 2010
Is blonde and voluptuous a sufficient motive for harrowing hell?

I recently caught the first few minutes of the cartoon movie version of Dante’s Inferno.  Besides reminding me that “serious” cartoons that are supposedly made for adults are often really badly written, it also reminded me of how poorly the motivations were developed for the character, Dante, when I tried to play the video game version.


Using that old chestnut, the “damsel in distress,” as a primary motivator in video game narratives is hardly something new.  The slight plot of Donkey Kong wholly rests on the idea of “guy needs to save girl.”  This plot line represents a very simple emblem of a traditional sense of heterosexual romance, men pursue women, thus, it is compelling to tell stories about this pursuit or, in the case of games, take on the role of the man pursuing the woman. Embedded in this notion is the idea that a woman is something worth pursuing in and of herself, however, more sophisticated versions of these stories tend to at least attempt to give us some sense of a relationship that exists between these characters or a sense of who the woman is that a man should go to so much trouble for.


Donkey Kong has a seemingly similar advantage that Dante’s Inferno should have in telling its story.  Since Donkey Kong derives its minimal structure from King Kong—ape steals guy’s girl, guy has to pursue girl to get her back—prior knowledge of the story of King Kong may help us to understand that a relationship exists between our hero and damsel.  The need for exposition then in Donkey Kong is obviated by the romantic background of the story having already been told. 


Likewise, a prior knowledge of Dante’s Divine Comedy should give us insight into the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, idealized as it is by the poet.  However, Dante’s Inferno has also revised the tale, making Dante and Beatrice’s platonic and ideal love something less so, modernizing it for a contemporary audience.  Beatrice “gives it up” only to Dante because he is especially worthy and faithful.  A modern day version of “platonic” love is monogamy . . . or something? Despite being familiar with the previous work, the game still leaves me cold regarding Beatrice as a motivation for Dante. 


However, I can’t quite figure out why I am pursuing her so very hard (indeed, like the cartoon movie, I only made it through the first 10 or 20% of the game before returning the rental—talk about a lack of motivation).  This brief nod to idealization and a few scenes that fail to give me a sense of who this woman is before she is bleeding on the ground and giving up her ghost to Lucifer himself don’t really speak to me of why Dante likes this woman so much.


Curiously, though, lack of motive is at the heart of classic games that utilize the damsel in distress motif.  Is Mario in love with Princess Peach?  Is that why he is pursuing her in Super Mario Bros.?  That has always remained a bit unclear to me in the Mario mythology.  I seem to vaguely recall a reward kiss from Peach in some iteration of the series, but Mario’s motives in the first game seem especially unclear as he is merely launched into the Mushroom kingdom and begins moving to the right (assumedly, the direction that “the castle” where Peach is being held exists).  The closing scene, in which Peach simply thanks Mario, also doesn’t clarify any kind of romantic closure to a potential love story. 


Instead, if we are to assume some sort of romantic motivation or at the very least that the princess is valuable enough to pursue, Peach is defined merely by her status as princess.  In this instance, Peach seems to be reduced to a characterless object rather readily.  She has a crown, so she is conceived of by the player as something like treasure, maybe?  It’s a rather cold emblem of the goal of a romantic, epic quest if that is the case.


That same coldness seems to exist in Dante’s Inferno.  While Beatrice and Dante’s relationship is at least represented briefly in some flashback sequences, as noted the player is simply never really given a sense of who this woman.  She is blonde and voluptuous and maybe this signifies something like “treasure” in a most bleak vision of the fundamental nature of male-female relationships, but is blonde and voluptuous a sufficient motive for harrowing hell?


Ironically, I just wrote a few weeks ago about “The Romance of Karateka, a game very much in the vein of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Dante’s Inferno, but I praised it for its success as a romance cast in this very same formula, saying, “In a sense Karateka‘s romantic sensibilities are simple, traditional, and cliched, but they are also simple, relatable, and supported by the gameplay itself, which boils romance down to one thematic interest: how does effort fit into the equation [of romance]?” (Popmatters.com, 3 February 2010).  However, I also observed about the reason for the elegance and simplicity of the way that that game approaches romantic relationships is due to the fact that “It is a boy’s story.  Frankly, it is a little boy’s story.”  While Mariko is the “object” that motivates the effort in the game, nevertheless, the experience of the game focuses the player on its lesson in romance, which is that effort is required to reach that goal.  It is a simple enough lesson about love when you haven’t yet reached puberty, requiring no real necessity in creating complex characters and psychologies to support a mature sense of the complexities of a relationship.


Frankly, such simple goals and lessons also make the seemingly purposeless pursuit of Peach similarly palatable to the pre-pubescent gamer.  But Mario has always been marketed first towards that demographic.  If the game holds charm for adult gamers, that charm lies in its innocence and simplicity because of the way that it has been shaped for its younger target audience.


If that is the case, Dante’s Inferno rating, Mature, may speak to its problems in developing a plot based on underdeveloped relationships and an underdeveloped damsel in distress.  While children might need a simple and emblematic vision of romance to tell a story, adults generally want a bit more information to begin to believe in character’s motivations. If Beatrice is represented as a flat, emblematic character laid bare (quite literally, which is part of the many reasons for its rating) for the adult player, the mixture of mature subject matter with an idealized image and childish theme becomes problematic for the game’s target demographic.  It is a dilemma for Dante’s Inferno as the imagery that the developers want to portray in hell is certainly not suitable for a child’s eyes, but, unfortunately, the romance that is being presented is maybe only believable when viewing it through those same eyes.  It is a children’s story trapped in an adult frame.  If the content of games is to mature, characterization needs to mature alongside it.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 2, 2010
If a game is the space between design and content, then engaging with topics like feedback, distribution of load times, and accessibility to new players are important factors.

As a game reviewer (and maybe this is true even more so than for any other form of criticism), you can never quite shake the fear that maybe it’s just you who doesn’t like a game. Or conversely, maybe it’s just you who could ever enjoy the twisted thing. While something like New Games Journalism (“The New Games Journalism”, Popmatters.com, 18 June 2009) attempts to articulate the individual experience, the hazard with a game review is that your experience might ultimately be too unique. A reviewer might have played every single FPS that came out in 2009 and nothing short of the second coming is going to impress them. A reviewer who has been a fan of every single Bioware RPG is probably going to be able to figure out a game’s system much more quickly than someone who has never touched one. Review sites like IGN or Kotaku mitigate this problem by breaking things into categories like Story, Presentation, Likes, or Dislikes but these are hardly objective standards. It’s easy to dismiss technical critiques like bugs or load times as irrelevant to a game’s value, but the notion of bringing them up still has merit. What can be gained by approaching a game review from a more technical perspective than things like fun factor or story? Looking at a game from a technical perspective really just means treating games like experience generating machines instead of experiences themselves.


I’m not talking about just rattling off stats, I mean applying a technical methodology normally used to test for things like bugs to gauge the value of the game itself. If a game is the space between design and content, then engaging with topics like feedback, distribution of load times, and accessibility to new players are important factors. How much of a beating can a game take if you play badly? A Gamasutra article by David Wilson on QA styles highlights several interesting testing methods. The Ad-Hoc style is one in which the QA tester is constantly screwing with the system. If they spot a hole, they try to jump into it. If they see a weird nook in a fence, they plow into it with the strongest attack. The article explains, “This is where ad-hoc testing becomes an art: finding things that the end-user may attempt that the developers haven’t planned for” (“Quality Quality Assurance: A Methodology for Wide-Spectrum Game Testing”, Gamasutra, 28 April 2009). A more reasonable test for a reviewer is one in which the QA lets the screen fill up with monsters then tries to save or perform a move that will tax the hardware to the brink. If it’s a mission in which you are supposed to be following an NPC, what happens if I turn around and go back to the start of the level? If I’m supposed to be guarding an NPC, does friendly fire hurt them? Explosives? How many bullets does it take before they drop? The purpose of these tests is to undermine the fact that as a game reviewer or experienced player, you might not run into these problems. Rather than try to break it down into “I found this easily” you can just say, “The NPC can only take five bullets and will stop moving at key intervals if you forget them”. Consider the last level of Half Life 2: Episode 2. Anthony Burch points out in an article for The Escapist (“String Theory: The Illusion of Videogame Interactivity”, The Escapist, 31 March 2009) that the whole level is an elaborate feedback system. It’s designed to just put you on the brink. Based on your health and location, X number of spider tanks will come after the base.  As more games begin to revolve around adapting to player input to perfect the player’s experience, spotting the edges of the system can only be done if you do some serious poking around.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Feb 26, 2010
A warning screen appears when you first start Silent Hill: Shattered Memories that states “This game plays you as much as you play it.” This is a warning not to be taken lightly.

This discussion of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does contain spoilers.


Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a complete departure from the traditional survival horror format. It’s not simply a reimagining of the original Silent Hill. It’s a wholly new game. However, despite the differences, it keeps the single most important facet of the Silent Hill franchise intact, the very facet that its predecessor, Homecoming, forgot: retaining the psychological in psychological horror.


 


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.