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Wednesday, Jan 27, 2010
Playing a video game is fun, watching it, not so much.

Folks have noted that the aesthetics of video games have crept into Hollywood for a number of years.  One of the first times that I can recall someone discussing the idea of video games influencing film was back in 2002 at a media conference.  In a presentation called “Placing the Dominoes: The Issue of Free Will in Run, Lola, Run,” Angela Stephens noted that the titular character in Tom Tykwer’s film essentially “gets three lives” in the film to accomplish her run and that this notion may be derived from the pseudo-immortality of video game character “lives.”


While Stephens wanted to suggest that this notion complicates our own sense of free will because of how such illusions might alter our sense of how much control that we have over our own lives, such complicated readings are probably less common than the simple observation that the visual aesthetics of video games (especially action sequences) have often influenced cinematic visual aesthetics.  For instance, I recall watching Revenge of the Sith and thinking how much the sequence with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting over a lava field on chunks of rock resembled a platformer like Mario.


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Wednesday, Jan 20, 2010
Death and dismemberment is a given in stylish action games of this sort, but the manner in which death and dismemberment occurs is a different matter.

While I focused last week’s blog on the hypersexual and ultraviolent spectacle of Bayonetta (as many game critics seem to be doing, like Chris Dahlen and Leigh Alexander), I wanted to briefly mention a little detail about the game that I admire beyond its audaciousness, something much less spectacular at first glance: the loading screens.


Loading screens are usually viewed as an irritation by most, and most players would like to see them removed or shortened as much as possible (as my colleague, L.B. Jeffries wrote about not too long ago).  While I am no fan of staring at loading screens, I have found that occasionally they serve a useful purpose in my gaming experience.  Sometimes they teach me something.


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Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010
Bayonetta is rarely interested in much beyond magnificently realized spectacle.

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.


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Wednesday, Jan 6, 2010
Rather than “liberate” the player, “The Midnight Club” download encourages a very specific action based on the player's own libidinous propensities: purchase of The Sabotuer, especially a new copy of the game.

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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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009
Solving the mysteries of Assassin's Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.

One might observe that the opening few hours of Assassin’s Creed II resemble the pacing of a story told in a still life painting (that is: going nowhere fast).  Blessedly once the player has a larger sense of the picture of the game as its vistas and views unfold, it becomes a canvas much much more vividly alive.


While this metaphor between painting and game might seem just a cute criticism, it is also a rather appropriate one for a game that is set in one of the most fruitful eras and locations for painting in Western history, the Italian Renaissance.  Also, it is notably a game particularly focused on vision and seeing as the game’s protagonist, Ezio, is an assassin who can only get his bearings in the world by scaling buildings to overlook the places in which he will be hunting his prey.  This need translates into one of the major objectives in gameplay. Unlike other open world games, which usually feature a fairly clear sense of the layout of the place that the main character will be residing in through a map in both compass form and/or accessible through a pause menu, both Assassin’s Creed games require the player to uncover the details of such maps by reaching perches noted on a map that is otherwise obscured by a fog of war.  The fog of war is removed when the player figures out how to reach a perch and presses a “sychronization” button that results in a long sweeping camera pan around the city revealing its heights and depths to the player on the main screen but also as it clears away the obscurity of the mini-map.


Renaissance painters are frequently cited as the chief developers of the landscape painting in the history of art, so this camera pan, which has qualities of the landscape painting (revealing the immensity and grandeur of size of human surroundings) seems particularly fitting for this second game in the series.  After all, it is set within this time period. 


The Healing of a Madman

The Healing of a Madman (1494), Vittore Carpaccio

While one might note that landscape painting very often revels in showing the small stature of humanity in relation to their surroundings, art critics have noted the complicated relationship between landscapes and human beings especially as they relate to human power and authority.  The central thesis of Kenneth Robert Olwig’s Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic is that in landscape painting the viewer discovers that “our environment, conceived of as landscape scenery, is fundamentally linked to our political landscape.” Olwig’s observations concerning the landscape painting that developed during the Renaissance is especially indicative of this correlation between nature and the political.  For instance, he describes the world controlled by a Renaissance prince in terms of how it is viewed as landscape by such a ruler:
One characteristic of that world is that it was observed at neither ground level nor from a vertical point infinitely above, but somewhere in between—a compromise, as it were, between the vertical and the horizontal.  From the vertical axis were taken such elements as pagan gods and goddesses floating in the sky and tableaux showing the unvarying cycle of the season; from the horizontal axis, pastoral landscapes of Virgilian inspiration opening out to the horizon, that is, reaching deep into the recesses of an elongated stage.  The potentate viewed the entire spectacle from a well-placed, elevated seat.  HE was the force that made it all happen and now he could see it all—an essentially harmonious universe—going through its paces before his commanding eye.
Interestingly, in Assassin’s Creed 2 such tableaux’s become the object of Ezio’s studied eye and not that of a Renaissance potentate.  Having to crawl up the walls of Venetian churches or bell towers in Florence, Ezio finds himself at the “top of the world” to study and map the region and its doing.  That so much of Renaissance Italy’s heights are marked by churches and the like, though, is indicative of Olwig’s thesis.  As much of the game suggests, most of the powerful men of this period were directly or indirectly related to the church, and thus, the “elevated seat” of rulers could often be mapped to the elevated steeples and bell towers of the churches of the area and the men who control the knowledge of the world and cosmos that occupy those spaces and would normally then “control” those heights.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558), Pieter the Elder Bruegel

That Ezio climbs to these heights himself is indicative of his character as assassin and general troublemaker.  In attempting to figure out his bearings and to suss out the mysteries that underlie the landscapes (both their physical space but also the political realities that the cities represent and that he will involve himself in) before him, Ezio takes it upon himself to share the perspective of the vertical and horizontal worlds controlled by his opposition.  That Ezio is capable of surviving on the rooftops is suggestive of his challenge of those normally “seated” there to view the spectacle.  He wants to be able to view this spectacle too.  He may be able to wrest control of the heights, or at least, do so long enough in game terms to understand the lay of the land beneath him, what treasures and objectives that it holds (again, in game terms, since the mini-map provides information on collectibles and mission starting points).  In this sense, the game mechanic of revealing maps by climbing towers in order to understand how to proceed next is emblematic of the narrative, as those physical spaces represent the political world that Ezio needs to map and wreak havoc upon.

Thus, landscapes serve both the interests of this political narrative as well as the interests of uncovering the mysteries of power in the game.  Ezio is constantly trying to see the order of the conspiracies that underlie the hidden power structures that have embedded themselves into the landscape.  Be it in unraveling the mysteries of the Codex or by locating the glyphs that also mark the heights of these politicized buildings, the mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.  Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies.  To climb to these heights is to rebel and to attempt to see as a potentate or a god might, which is ironically exemplified by the artifact of power that so many are seeking in both games.  The apple of Eden involves coupling the concept of rebellion against authority with knowledge, thus, overcoming one’s lowly stature as mere mortal and becoming powerful “like a God.”  While taking on such authority through knowledge is warned against in the traditional views of this story, the man that so comfortably scrabbles over rooftops and cornices, the assassin Ezio, simply seems less afraid of a fall.


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