It as if Wet seems to apprehend the language of the exploitation cinema that it apes, but it is questionable whether it truly comprehends that language.
WetPublisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Artificial Mind and Movement
Release Date: 2009-09-15
I deeply admire the audacity of the title of Bethesda's Wet. “Wet” refers to the protagonist, Rubi Malone's, occupation as assassin (skilled at such “wetwork”) and also implies a less than subtle bit of sexual innuendo. Given Wet's overt exploitation cinema influences, the ability to work that genre of film's two dominant interests, violence and sex, into just one three letter word is pretty clever.
Indeed, Wet is a game whose exploitation influences are clear particularly in its celebration of graphic violence and to a lesser degree in its celebration of sex. One part Foxy Brown and one part Kill Bill mixed with Grindhouse while adding a twist of John Woo and The Matrix, Wet doesn't attempt to hide these influences but, instead, chooses to emphasize them by interrupting gameplay with retro Drive-In movie advertisements and the same scratchy images and film reel breaks and burns that marked Rodriguez and Tarantino's double-feature homage to the genre.
Unlike, Rodriguez and Tarantino's use of these conventions in Deathproof and Planet Terror to emphasize and comment on the absurdity of some grindhouse films plots (for example, you don't need the lost footage in either film to understand their finer plot points, it is just more mindless filler that may or may not be necessary to the “real” enjoyment of the film: the violence and sex), their use here seems merely an aping of this marker of the retro quality of the ideas on display.
In that sense while Wet often seems interested in trying to represent an exploitation style, it often seems to flounder when it comes to fully grasp some of the underlying rationale for the genre's conventions. It as if the game seems to apprehend the language of exploitation cinema but it is questionable whether it truly comprehends that language.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the protagonist of the game, Rubi Malone. Rubi follows in the footsteps of older grindhouse female leads from classic examples like Foxy Brown to newer iterations like the Bride in Kill Bill. Like those characters, she is tough, cruel, and vengeful, which results in her spilling a lot of blood. Unlike those characters that she is based on, it isn't often clear exactly why she is what she is and whether we should forgive her those nasty character traits.
While exploitation cinema often features tough and haughty broads that can kick ass and take names, there is an underlying ethics to exploitation that makes what would otherwise be some fairly difficult characters to sympathize with (given their tendency to brutally mete out pain and suffering) become ones that the audience feels comfortable getting behind. Suffering is at the core of the violence in exploitation flicks. It is meted out by the protagonists but that is directly related to their own experiences of suffering. If Foxy Brown is allowed to castrate her enemies or the Bride to dismember them, exploitation directors are careful about suggesting a reason for their audience to accept this behavior: because we have seen Foxy and the Bride suffer.
There is a reason that Foxy is a rape victim and that Kill Bill opens with the sound of the Bride's suffering (her panting groans) followed by the image of her bloody face that represents her attempted assassination during her own wedding (oh, yeah, while she is pregnant, too). A very straightforward ethic underlies these representations of suffering that says that suggests that women can violate others in response to their own violation.
Unfortunately, Rubi lacks such visceral justification for being so angry and rude. There isn't much of an effort to flesh out this character (however, superficially through violence) to justify her own propensity towards violence. Indeed, sequences that feature Rubi flying into a rage and that allow the player some pretty unfettered control of Rubi's most violent tendencies are always predicated by a rather thin source of her aggravation. In a cut scene, Rubi shoots an opponent in the head. The victim's blood splashes onto her face, triggering Rubi's rage. This “suffering” doesn't contain the explicit drama of suffering that motivates or drives Foxy or the Bride's respective wrath. It seems, instead, only petulant by comparison.
Rubi is tortured once quite late in the game in a nod to the convention of watching female protagonists in the exploitation genre suffer. However, the scene is so brief and so late that it fails to mitigate the earlier sense that the player has that Rubi seems driven by her own wrath and tendency towards boozing prior to combat, not any kind of ethic that justifies a reciprocal justice and cycle of violence.
Wet's gameplay, too, suffers from not quite seeming to fully grasp its influences' successes in exposing their audiences to violence and allowing them to enjoy its graphic qualities. More modern, perhaps, in its conception of combat, Wet depends on a combat system inspired by the slow motion balletics of John Woo and Matrix-style combat. By jumping and sliding across the floor, Rubi triggers such slow downs in order to generate slow moving but dramatically engaging shootouts. What Woo and the Wachowskis' seem to realize is that explicit violence is enjoyable to watch in this form because the film medium allows for passive and leisurely viewing of such events. The slow motion in film basically further emphasizes such leisure as that audience appreciates the athleticism and power of bodies in motion and bodies dismembered.
Unfortunately, such passivity and leisure to “watch” seems hampered by the medium that Wet finds itself in. While games, too, have celebrated stylish and visually pleasurable gratuitous violence, the player really has little leisure to really watch everything going on at once. Because the player is actively participating in this activity, his or her attention tends to be on focusing on little details like targeting reticles and where to land rather than on the mise en scene of carnage. In other words, Wet might be more fun to watch than to play, certainly not a quality that one is looking for in a video game.
While Wet's interest is in stylish action, though, it also suffers from emphasizing such style at the exclusion of nearly everything else. Experience points are gained more rapidly by chaining varied types of attacks together, jumping in slo mo into a floor slide nets more points towards upgrading Rubi's abilities. Such a decision to reward success through measurable stylistics would seem to be a good one, it rewards behaving as a contemporary action hero should.
However, rather than free the player to attempt to create the most elegant battles possible with all of the acrobatic skills at their disposal, this actually handcuffs the player in some sense by forcing them into repetitious patterns like jump, slide, jump to maintain high scoring chains. Such repetitions become visually ponderous rather than exciting and dramatic. Additionally, rooms are often not well designed for this kind of acrobatic style as they frequently are too small or cluttered with stairs or statuary that break up free flowing chains. Frankly, the “rage mode” mentioned earlier that Rubi flies into when “made wet” by blood are the most fun sequences to play because chains and combos are not evaluated during these sequences, and thus, Rubi is free to create unfettered chaos of the player's design rather than those established by the game's rules.
Still, while I am critical of the execution of Wet, there is some fun to be had here. When levels are designed well and the clutter is cleared, playing as Rubi can be fairly exciting (a room featuring a Japanese band that seems inspired by the 5, 6, 7, 8s is particularly notable as one of the well conceived levels). Rubi's cynicism does also have its occasional and visceral charm (as when Rubi, who frequently and aggravatingly has to pry open most doors with her sword, attempts to pry open one such door open and cries out in frustration, "Fuck you, door!" -- you may need to play that yourself to appreciate its humorousness, though). Additionally, I have to mention the generally excellent soundtrack. Largely a mix of punk, rockabilly, and what I want to call folk-punk (some of these songs seem like what a tune might sound like if Black Flag and the Moldy Peaches had a love child), much of the music is a precise match to the action of the game and genre, and frankly, make me want to seek out some albums from some bands that I hadn't heard of before now.
Basically, I really wanted to love Wet and I wanted to love Rubi Malone because I am a fan of the films and directors that Wet borrows from. Unfortunately, both the game and the protagonist fail to offer me much reason to even like either one of them all that much.