Thursday, October 30, 2014

October Spook-tacular Playoffs: Event Horizon

at 6:00 PM
The List:
The Conjuring (2013)
The Mist (2007)
Event Horizon (1997)
Parents (1989)
Halloween (1978)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
The Quartermass Xperiment (1955)
Cat People (1942)
The Mummy (1932)
The  Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Infinite criticism.
Title: Event Horizon
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Philip Eisner
Actors I recognize: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishbarn

What I know going in: One mans goes to space, but what happens when he can't come back... from space? Actually I know that Sam Neill is going to turn evil and that an event horizon is the point of no return from a black hole. Little science bomb to drop on your head there.

I had a morbid curiosity about this one, as it has a positive reputation among bad scifi apologists the net over. Moreover, I'll watch Sam Neill in anything because I have yet to see him star in a bad picture. Until today. Let me drop a metaphor bomb on your head here: Event Horizon is on the wrong side of the event horizon of movie awfulness. Nothing good escapes from this black hole of creativity and entertainment, not even the great Sam Neill. It's not often I find a movie beyond forgiveness, but for me the fatal flaw is something to do with a lack of concept. Not since Jacob's Ladder have I seen a movie so confused and confusing about what it is or is trying to say. Event Horizon isn't so much a wild flurry of ideas; like a bad X-Files episode, it's a viewing experience where nothing happens and a wide array of flat, uninteresting, and far too specific self-commentary is strewn on the floor like as many dead bodies.

The basic idea is that a ship is lost in space and comes back seven years later, whereupon a bunch of Aliens-wannabes go check it out and find it had been in another dimension and came back as an apparently living haunted house? but people there can never die? and it still has a portal to the other dimension? Which it turns out is either basically or literally Hell; the movie is never particularly honest on whether people are capitalizing that word. So we have dimension-shifting, religious suggestions, inanimate things coming to life, possibly demonic possession, isolation, and a whole. lot. of. hallucinations. About half the movie is unrelated hallucinations.

The plot is so weirdly strung together that it feels like the filmmakers had a series of images in mind but no clue how to rope them into the same story. It reminds me of the music-video-esque Hellraiser 2, but at least Hellraiser 2 was relatively focused and genuinely out there. Really there isn't much story; what we get is mostly back-story - in the words of the illumined Ebert, "the screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding". The gang gets stranded on the evil Event Horizon, we hear a lot of Sam Neill explaining/worshiping the ship, some side characters try to repair their escape shuttle entirely off-screen, and everyone else wanders about, either experiencing hallucinations or whining. No one does anything. Nothing about their scenario changes from beginning to end, and once we reach the end we actually learn they couldn't have done anything even if they wanted (they were past the event horizon! except two people still escape...).

The pacing here is a puked-in dumpster. The intro is dramatic nonsense, act 1 is pure exposition until someone finally finds a corpse, act 2 is people having inconsequential hallucinations and a bunch of undeveloped hanging threads (like fixing the ship and finding the Event Horizon's crew logs), and in act 3 finally someone fucking dies. The action becomes relentless but so scattered that everything remains an unsatisfying headache.

The handling of the burdensome hallucinations is utterly piss-poor. Dream sequences are a very difficult beast to slay, requiring a careful balance of deceit, implication, and consequence. Once I know events aren't for keeps, I tend to disengage. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons Twin Peaks is so good - it betrays that expectation and makes dreams/visions matter more than waking reality. But Event Horizon does not understand this balancing act. Hallucinations take form as things whose if-this-is-real implications are just really stupid. A crew member sees her son with wounds on his legs. Oh my god, what if he's really on the ship? Not only do I not see how that could be true, I don't care. So what if her son is on the ship? Or in hell? Is there anything she can or might have done about it? No. Does it tell us something about her character? She doesn't want bad things to happen to her son. Delightful. What a visionary trait. Is it an incarnation of a past sin? If it is, I certainly can't figure it out, nor does this character get enough screen-time for me to know what that means to her. I hate this part of the movie so much

The function of the dream sequences in the overall plot is perplexingly nonsensical. The crew is eventually clued in to the root of the terror: the ship is alive! Wait, the ship is alive? What does that have to do with people going insane? Ohhhhh, the hallucinations are a "defense mechanism", like "some kind of immune system" (hi terrible screenwriting cliche!). Those are two completely different ideas. Crew members tripping balls. Ship is alive. Since when do we automatically assume hallucinations have an external origin? This is like when Mulder throws off a perfectly reasonable hypothesis about hypnotic suggestion by declaring "it's a form of psychokinesis!" The fact that we're given a single setup line about the scanners detecting life signs from all over the ship is essentially an insult, like one of the characters picking up a page from the script and reading "holy cow, the ship is alive?!".

And, unsurprisingly, the ship being alive creates exactly zero original conflict. The crew is fighting to escape the Event Horizon because they're running out of oxygen. That is the main boss of this movie. Was that supposed to create a sense of realism or something? With all the other shit going on, you'd think they'd want to leave anyway, but the fact that it's a failing oxygen supply that kicks them into gear makes it seem like it doesn't matter at all what happens, because they're going to be dead in four hours anyway. This redundant timer saps all the tension out of the would-be conflict with the ship or Evil Sam Neill.

The tone is also bad. Mostly I would call this dumpy perfunctory self-seriousness; the kind of scifi that acts realistic (people feel contemporary) but never earns it (they are still extremely movie-like). Yet occasionally we get an insane jolt of yakety-saxical comedy thanks to Eddie Murphy stand-in Cooper. Coop isn't in most of the movie, but when he shows up occasionally it's with whoopy-cushion one-liners and huge exaggerated expressions. Whoever wrote that character is an idiot. Whoever directed those scenes is an idiot. Whoever chose not to leave them on the cutting room floor is an idiot. Better yet, in the middle of a couple dramatic scenes with Mr. Justin (such as when he tries to commit suicide by explosive decompression) characters refer to him as "Baby Bear". This is never explained and extremely (unintentionally) hilarious. [watching guy bleeding out of his eyes] "Hang in there Baby Bear!"

Here is another scene that has a very very dumb tone
At the heart of all the movie's problems is the noncommittal approach to characters - I can't tell who the hell (Hell) this movie is about. It seems like maybe originally it was supposed to be the tale of Sam Neill's battles with guilt over his dead wife, but then it was decided that they wanted a third act where he's evil and that another character would need to take over. So Laurence Fishburne gets some haphazard exposition and, yay, a hallucination, revealing that he once let a man die because it was necessary in order to save others, and he never wants to do that again. Again, this is the yawniest of motivations ever conceived. Oh my god, the captain doesn't want anyone to die! It's not even like it's his fault that they're in this deadly situation; the whole crew was basically tricked into the mission and he didn't know their destination, let alone what had happened to it. There are enough periphery characters that get expository but not active development that I'm sure someone considers the novelization an ensemble tale. It doesn't work that way in movies. Remember how everyone has really strong personalities at the beginning of Aliens, and then they all immediately die anyway? Man I wish that had happened in Event Horizon.

Though it never makes a philosophical statement on any coherent level, Event Horizon has a bit of a Jurassic Park problem. See, Jurassic Park is a movie about the power of nature and mankind's attempts to control it. Giant dinosaurs are brought back to life and it is amazing and the scientific discovery of a lifetime, but terrible coincidences and one self-serving asshole cause a handful of deaths at their hands. But still, man has brought life to extinct species! Think of what we can learn! Except the moral of the story, as our Jeff Goldbums so clearly elucidate, is that that was a fucking mistake and should never have been done and it was playing god which is evil. That's a science-phobic crock of shit and a pretty damn ironic conclusion for a movie that revitalized pop-interest in paleontology and evolutionary biology. Come on, dinosaurs were not going to get out and destroy civilization. Event Horizon gets caught up in the same stew of equating technology to hubris; here it's theoretical physics. There's an attempt, presumably to make the movie seem like "real" science fiction, to explain some astronomical phenomena at a third-grade level. Why a trained space crew needs wormholes explained to them is a pretty reasonable question, but whatever. It's setup so that when shit hits the fan, the angry dumb guy can say, "you can't break the laws of physics without paying the consequences!". Hacky dialogue or not, the idea that experimentation is a gateway to hell is pure sourness. Should we shut down the space program every time a shuttle crashes? (perhaps appropriately, a NASA Antares rocket just exploded this week)

But maybe Event Horizon is just reaching for our instinctual fear of the unknown, forget about science. A tale Lovecraftian in purpose. But the essence of Lovecraft is that mankind is irrelevant - we aren't the ones ignoring the rest of the universe, the rest of the universe is ignoring us. A happy ending and a sense of containment undercuts any such thematics. The universe of Event Horizon is still anthropocentric. I mean, apparently the ship cares enough to give people personalized visions of their loved ones and past mistakes. There is no awe here, no cosmic loneliness. This is the kind of story that makes the invocation of Lovecraft a punchline rather than an honor.

It feels almost disingenuous to show you cool pictures as if they are in any way representative of the movie's quality
In other poorly executed concepts, I hate movies that conflate insanity with evil. This is not a legitimate criticism so much as an example of the the movie setting its sights really low, but it is boring when someone going "insane" just means they become a jerk like Sam Neill does here. Watch Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness or the fantastic French art-horror Possession if you want Sam Neill to show you how to lose a mind. God I wish I had just re-watched Possession instead of this.

I have a single compliment for Event Horizon. Some of the sets, with their intricate techno-gothic architecture, are very cool-looking. If you are the set designer for Event Horizon, congratulations for providing quality work amidst what I'm sure was a waterfall of shitheaded retardation. Though I do have to say your output feels a bit derivative of Warhammer 40K. Since that's not a movie, that's cool though.

Actually, hang on a second. Future humans create a warp portal that accidentally encroaches upon a chaos dimension from which spout possessing spirits and torture demons? And techno-gothic whatever? That's the plot of Warhammer 40K. This movie is WH40K: The Prequel. It's also a really huge ripoff of Hellraiser, but I gotta bring this bitchfest to an end sometime.

What I know going out: This movie is an insult to my intelligence.

Oh man, I forgot to mention Space Latin. Well, maybe next time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Surviving The Evil Within, Chapter 3: What was that noise?

at 6:00 PM
So, if it hasn't occurred to you yet, things might get kinda spoily from here. Probably not plot-wise, but it's impossible for me to narrate the gameplay without revealing monsters and their locations. It's been a pain just finding screenshots without seeing every last twisted boss. At least it's made me confident that chainsaw guys and zombies are just the tip of the iceberg.

At the onset of "Clause of the Horde" Sebastian and I pulled ourselves out of the muck and started working our way into the village on the other side of Chapter 2's stone bridge. Approaching through the mist, the town square seemed quiet. Nothing was amiss - nothing except the bodies hung upside down below a wooden walkway. I busted through the window of the nearest house and was startled by a loud beeping - that's when Sebastian exploded into a dozen pieces.

Restarting from the checkpoint I returned to the same window and this time ran into a corner as soon as I'd hopped through. The beeping died out as I moved away from the entry point, and turning around I got a look at a new type of exploding trap: the exploding trap. A quick tutorial window told me I could sneak up to exploding traps to disarm them, so I gave it a try and was snapped into a QTE minigame. Not ready for what was happening (other traps are automatically disarmed when you press A), I failed Sebastian and he exploded again. Returning a third time, I timed a button-press for when the rotating dial crossed a safe zone and the trap was safely disarmed. I moved past another one, dropped by a safe house, and made my way through the upstairs until a cut-scene was triggered.

Here Sebastian joins up with Dr. Dave and some very confusing dialogue. The doc points out a heavily guarded gate as the only escape from the village and suggests one of us should create a distraction so the other can make a run for it. Then he says "you're the one with the gun..." and gameplay restarts. Now, maybe I'm stupid, but I could not figure out from that line who he was suggesting should be the diversion. I kinda assumed he meant me, since gunshots would grab the zombies' attention. Before I had a second to think it over, I heard zombies breathing down my neck and he streaked off across the square yelling "HEY, LOOK OVER HERE!!!".

So he meant he would be the one getting their attention. Whatever. I made a run for the gate and got immediately swarmed and killed by zombies. So... did the diversion not work? Did I not understand what was happening? When I retried I went with a different route, this time going behind the houses, but there were still zombies everywhere and I couldn't open the gate - not to mention my diversion had locked himself in one of the houses. Still confused, I decided to ignore the "make a run for it" plan and just hid in a closet while Dr. Retardo did his thing.

From the closet I could hear loud rasping zombie mouth-sounds, so I knew I wasn't alone. After a minute or two it looked like no one was going to waltz by and invite a stealth kill, so I wandered out and headed down the hallway. That's when I heard footsteps on the roof or a ladder thudding against the wall and two baddies splashed through the window right on top of me (RE4). With exactly two bullets to my name I dished out a couple swats and made a run for the basement. On the way I took out one of my pursuers by ducking below a trip-wire that he blindly triggered. The other went down with an ax to the head (the occasional expendable ax provides a one-hit kill identical to the torch). There was one more zombie waiting in the basement, so I carefully lined up a headshot and splattered an unreasonable amount of blood across the room.

It definitely felt nice (heart-pounding, but nice) to get some fast-paced spontaneous gameplay going. There were enough bullets in the basement (four) to take out my attackers, but the pressure was so high that I was taking the immediate reflex solutions which let me continue to conserve ammo. That said, I took a lot of hits and used up all my healing items in all that fumbling around. Maybe the smartest thing would've been to run and re-hide after I had been spotted, but I was alive and armed, so I kept going.

Though there were no other monsters in sight, I was still surrounded by wheezing, gurgling sounds that reminded me they could be anywhere. Let me tell you, the moans these things make are so much creepier than your run-of-the-mill "braiiiiiiiiiiiiins"ing. They sounds like demonic cats trying to hock up barbed wire hairballs. I'm desperate to kill enemies just to clear the air of that awful fucking noise.

After sneaking out of the first house I shot my way through two more zombies into a barn that looked mostly empty. Again, it didn't sound particularly empty, stirred by metallic scraping sounds, more groaning, and even some pig squeals. I collected some supplies in the rafters and moved on.

On my way to the next house I got a good view of a zombie's back and tiptoed up for a stealth kill... except a goddamn bear trap latched onto my leg and ruined that plan, causing me to waste another two bullets. When I got inside and took out another three foes head-to-head (with the help of a torch and some matches), I had two exciting discoveries back to back: an attache case (RE4) holding a shotgun, and a crossbow leaning against a barrel. The crossbow is a little unusual, but I'll talk about how that works in a later chapter. As a veritable walking arsenal (I had also picked up some grenades by this point), I was feeling pretty confident and plowed through another two houses, mostly relying on stealth kills and crossbow bolts.

In the attic of the final house (which didn't have to be the final house, it just happened to be thanks to my approach), I bumped into The Doctor. This triggered some more confusing dialogue, starting with "How did you open the door so quickly?" I assume he meant the gate out of town, but I hadn't even opened it yet, and even Sebastian's line (something like "Gimme some time, doc") acknowledged that. It just... is this bad translation or what? The dialogue doesn't connect. It's not like it's mysterious, it's just non sequitur after non sequitur. Like someone cut-and-paste rearranged the script.

Once I had the town cleared I checked out the gate, which of course was locked tight. Sebastian suggested we find a chainsaw to cut through the chain holding it in place, but I had pretty thoroughly cleaned out the place already, so I was a bit perplexed. Combing through a second time, I noticed the barn was still ringing with that metal noise and moaning. I took a closer look around the ground floor... and that's when the Chapter 1 chainsaw guy Kool-aid Man'd his way through a wall and sawed off Sebastian's head.

Something unusual about this chapter, which was set in a single free-range area, is that after every four or five kills I would see the game saving a checkpoint. Whenever I died, I was reset to the center of the area and I guess all the kills/pick-ups up to the checkpoint were remembered. It was hard to tell since the zombies would never be found where I remembered killing them, and my location got reset pretty far from where the checkpoint was recorded or where I died. In this case, when the chainsaw guy killed me, I didn't remember when the last save had been so I had to retrace my steps for a while, making sure I still had all my supplies, and even found a few zombies in new locations. I guess in theory it revives the tension that threatens to disappear on a replay, but realistically it was disorienting in a tedious way. Hopefully other areas don't suffer from this problem.

Since I now knew where Mr. C. Saw was hiding, I was ready for round two. I used my crossbow to place a couple proximity mines and got my grenades at the ready before triggering his appearance. It wasn't hard to drag him into the traps, but he was too fast to easily peg with grenades. My shotgun didn't seem to slow his pursuit, but thankfully two mines, a grenade, and ~3 shells were enough to put him in the dirt. Chainsaw in hand (sadly as a key item rather than a weapon), I cut open the gate and completed the chapter.

The thing that worries me about Chapter 3 is I have no clue how I would've beaten the chainsaw guy had I missed the crossbow or the shotgun, or even if there had been zombies still wandering around. If there's no other way to kill this guy than to clear out everyone leading up to him, that's action, not survival. It worked with my current approach, but I'm not sure what I would've done - except die a lot - had I stumbled across him when I was in the barn that first time.

Actually, I just looked it up, and there are a bunch of other ways to kill him. Still seems like it'd be hard if you haven't mopped up the zombies, but there is an alternate crossbow way and a complete no-weapon way (similar to Verdugo, U3 and most of the RE4 bosses). I also learned I missed a whole bunch of items :-(

Overall, the pacing of this area felt a little off. Going through houses became methodical and that whole intro with the doctor was just bizarre and confusing (I still don't know what the plan was and feel like the game was telling me to do something I extremely was not supposed to do). Also, three new weapons at once is a lot, as I suddenly went from completely outgunned to teeming with firepower. As a stage of RE5 this would be great, but Chapter 2 had such a perfect balance that by comparison this hits as overblown. I think realistically I don't have a problem with Chapter 3 so much as I just don't want the remainder of The Evil Within to be this. The game could definitely work if it continues to oscillate between the super-stealth of Chapter 1, the Goldilocks balance of 2, and the heavy action of 3.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Surviving The Evil Within, Chapter 2: Deep forests with deep gameplay

at 6:00 PM
Maybe I'll do a daily journal of Evil Within chapters. We'll see how long they get. I know there are 16 and the game is said to be about 15 hours, so they might be just the right length to play one a night. Depends on how much I die.

So Chappy 1, as mentioned yesterday, is an uninspiring Mental Hospital Chainsaw Massacre. The gameplay is purely run-and-hide of the Clock Tower variety; however, the environment is complex enough to provide numerous avenues of sneaking. Crowded rooms with boxes, curtains, and lockers all over - not to mention bottles that can be thrown for distraction - allowed me to at least experiment as I repeatedly died and retried.

The player character is called Sebastian Castellanos. I just felt like getting that out of the way instead of trying to work it into a sentence.

Chapter 2 provides the tutorial that's missing from the dramatically hard intro. Sebastian is back to walking/running at normal speed - a bit faster than the standard enemies - and he's got a loaded revolver in hand. After an introduction to the save/upgrade safe-house accessible through mirrors, it's - as the saying goes - out of the hospital and into a nighttime forest encircling decaying cottages.

I know what you're saying. "First a chainsaw, now a forest? What is this, RE4?" Trust me, we haven't even scratched the surface of the RE4ness of this game, including bear traps, trip wires, not-a-zombies, the part where you use binoculars to look ahead at a villager gathering (just weird that that minor moment would be reused), and the being chased across a stone bridge by a torch-waving mob. Yes, from what I can tell, The Evil Within is Resident Evil 4. That is to say, the tagline should've been "Within this game resides an evil. That evil... is Resident Evil. Fooouurr.". Still, the open forest is a much cooler and scarier setting than a mental hospital and it doesn't look much like RE4 - the palette uses deep greens, blues, and greys rather than dusty reds and browns - so I'm not complaining.

Sorry, I wish I could use my own images for this coverage but I don't have any way to screen-cap from a 360 game
Shortly after I set off through the trees, I was forced into a showdown with a standard enemy. Three misses and a headshot later, I was down to two bullets and had a good idea that these sorta-zombies were faster than actually-zombies, liked to charge straight at me, and were soft in the skull. Against the next guy I wasn't so lucky - quickly wasting my remaining bullets, I had the choice to run or swing my fists. With a dead end behind me and no clue what was ahead, I thought it would be safest to test out the melee combat. It took about a dozen pistol whips and some stomping to put my foe down, not to mention almost my entire health bar, so it became apparent that melee was not to be relied upon.

Some dimly fire-lit houses lay ahead and I could make out a few zombies standing guard or walking in rigid patrol routes. In my ammo-less state and still not confident in my ability to run, I decided to go with a stealth approach. The first couple foes were easy to take down - just sneak up behind them and press A for a knifing - and I was cued onto others from their groaning sounds. Gradually clearing out the opposition gave me space to disarm traps that I would've tripped straight into had I been running.

The map at this point had really opened up and enemies were spaced far enough that it was easy both to manipulate angle/order of attack and to accidentally expose myself. Without an in-game map I was constructing a mental one instead - in an open, dark space with irregular geometry, that quickly became disorienting. There were a lot of houses to investigate and I occasionally came across ammo and healing items that I would've missed had I been taking a more rigid path to avoid/flee enemies. Then again, those extra items may not have been necessary if I wasn't relying on close encounters. Essentially the game was rewarding my style by facilitating it, encouraging thinking ahead and commitment. That's solid survival design.

At one point I picked up a torch from a fallen foe to help disperse the overwhelming blackness. Unfortunately it quickly gave away my position and I ended up with two zombonis bearing down on me. I swung the torch at one for an instantaneous - but single-use - kill, and blew through all the bullets I'd just found taking out his friend. Here the game kicked my ass for screwing up my own strategy, but it was fairly balanced - the bullets I had spent time collecting got me out of a sticky situation.

When an enemy went down its corpse remained, giving me a chance to torch it. The game doesn't explain why that's necessary, but matches are limited so I opted to conserve them during most of Chapter 2. That set up the best scare of the night: when I found some spare matches in one of the houses, I went back to torch some bodies I had left behind. But I couldn't find the bodies! At first I thought I was just lost, then I found the bloodstains where they had lain and realized they were actually gone. I don't know if this was a glitch, if they rose up and wandered off, or if they'll come back to haunt me later. Regardless, considering the implications was freaky.

After I made it through the cottages I came across a big zombie gathering. Before Sebastian had time to finish his cautious "I should leave them be" I had walked too close and drawn their attention. With what felt like a dozen enemies coming at me there was no way I could fight, so I made a run for it. It was pretty worrisome at first - I had no clue where I was going - but after I hit a wall and managed to loop around while still keeping the mob behind me, a lot of the tension dissolved. It was a little too easy in the open space to outrun the zombies, even slowing down every few seconds to let my stamina recharge. When I reached a bridge, a cutscene took over and I was home free.

Ultimately, stealth remains key to offsetting the scarcity of ammo, but the options to shoot or run are now open. There's no requirement to exterminate the enemies, so it's my call whether to run, gun, sneak, or assassinate. As a matter of fact I have half a mind to replay the chapter and see if I can run through, though I think that's better saved for a later play. Circumstances can quickly change to force adaptation - getting spotted forced me to shoot and running out of ammo necessitated melee and later flight. This is definitely starting to feel like classic Resident Evil-style survival horror. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Surviving The Evil Within, Chapter 1: Rebirth or plain old neo survival horror?

at 6:00 PM
Look at me, playing a current events game. Aren't I proud. With nearly (exactly) six games knocked off my queue in the past month, I had the "allowance" to grab Shinji Mikami's latest just in time for the pumpkining season. Mikami is perhaps the single most relentlessly visionary and effective director in the past 200 years, so I'm always excited to put in one of his games and see what it has to say. The Evil Within was much hyped in regards to a return to survival horror, but where exactly will it fit in the survhor portmandu?

Survival horror has traditionally been a merging point between adventure and action, where key goals are built around exploration and puzzles but accomplishing those goals requires the utilization of limited means to overcome active opposition. The player is driven not by their need to kill enemies, but by their need to open doors, thus they must press on regardless of their ability to fight. Preparation is meant to trump technical skill.
They say street ball leads to street violence
In the most iconic games, namely the Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill series, that concept manifests as mazes with ammo limits. There are always going to be zombies between you and that hexagonal key, and every bullet spent is one less available for the rest of the game. Exploration and survival feed into each other: evading enemies and taking shortcuts means ammo saved, finding stashes means greater reserves, and better weapons make for high risk/reward. You can choose your fights, but the imprecise action means that you can rarely rely on technical skill to get you out alive - supplies are a necessary fallback, and supplies can only be replenished through further exploration.

In the last decade or so, the progeny of Resident Evil 4 ran with that model until demanding action standards successfully honed out all the adventure/action exploration/combat interplay that defined 'survival'. Tighter controls, mandatory combat, performance-regulated ammo, and structural linearity dragged mainline horror into the greater action portmandu, largely in the name of "improving" visceral feedback and pacing. While fans of the classics might blame the low-brow demands of the conquering casual gamer, it could also be said that this was simply the natural progression of the style - by the fourth (really the eleventh) Resident Evil game, should it be any surprise that the architecture needed a blast of minty freshness? Whomever you want to blame, Resident Evil 5/6, the Dead Space games, and The Last of Us have more in common with straight-up shooters like Lost Planet and Gears of War than with their own origins.

But there was always a second kind of survival game aside the classic scrimp-and-shoots. Going back to Clock Tower (and before) are combatless games wherein the player must rely solely upon running and hiding to survive. Longevity in games like Fatal Frame falls more to knowing the environment than managing supplies; the style trades player-driven variety for elegant simplicity, creating a more "on rails" - but also more spontaneous - experience. While Resident Evil is all growing dread at increasingly dire circumstances, Clock Tower is a histrionic up-and-down roller coaster. Though sometimes described as "adventure horror", these games generally do rely on action techniques like reflexes and stealth, so ultimately they meet the action/adventure quota that defines a survival challenge. It's just a different approach where preparation comes down to knowing escape routes rather than wagering on excursions.

"Riding scissors" is actually the Japanese equivalent of "riding shotgun", thus imbuing this scene from Clock Tower with a humorous pun-infused tone
While the Resident Evil approach has been blending into action games at large, simultaneously there's been a serious reemergence of the run-and-hide haunted house. Just recently we were graced with the AAA release of Alien: Isolation and shortly before that came the acclaimed Outlast. Thanks to indie hits like Radiohead's Amnesiac and The Slendering, type 2 horror is probably at a peak in popularity, bigger and more accessible now than it's ever been. If anything, the on-rails style has taken over and formed a basis for neo-survival horror, while it's the ammo management games that have lost their significance and assimilated.

So that makes it a bit interesting when The Evil Within entrenches itself in hype about a revival of survival horror. Mikami's been totally off the horror wagon for years, his post-Resident Evil resume being more a who's who of deep technical action, from P.N. 03 to God Hand to Vanquish. And of course the game that spearheaded the trajectory into pure action was his own Resident Evil 4. Even his last horror game, the Suda 51 co-created shoot-em-up Shadows of the Damned, seemed to confirm that the father of survival horror had acknowledged its dissolution. But survival gameplay has survived - thanks to those Clock Tower-type games like Alien: Isolation - so one could take the hype to mean Shinji and co. had something else in mind. Most likely that extinct breed of ammo maze games that was absorbed by third-person shooters.

That makes it all the weirder that The Evil Within starts with a stealth/evasion sequence that could've come straight out of Amnesia or Metal Gear Solid. The player is being stalked by a chainsaw guy through a mental hospital and has to sneak around behind boxes and in lockers to get through the stage unharmed. It feels downright conservative in its reliance on principles that are all very popular right now. Hopefully this is just a starting point for more evolved gameplay, but over the first hour Evil Within feels kinda like an acknowledgement that Clock Tower was right and Resident Evil was wrong. I just got a gun in chapter 2, so fingers crossed that things open up and some classically resonant (or original) gameplay emerges.

Also, it probably isn't coming through, but the actual reason I care is nothing to do with the hype and everything to do with the fact that I don't particularly like the run-and-hide type of game. It is boring and lacks tension. It is a lot less scary to replay a segment for the sixth time because I keep getting caught than it is to waste all my ammo on a mistake and have to go into the unknown with only 3 bullets. As illustrated by my session last night in which I died like 10 times trying to get past that guy and tension turned into tedium. 

While I'm at it, a chainsaw guy in a mental hospital? Come on. I know everything under the sun has been done, but that is as cliche as cliche gets and is really hard to get excited about. RE4 was a horror pastiche and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: They Took My Baby Away from Me reference fit in both the context and the gameplay, not to mention it was fairly original for its time in gamedom. Seeing it in Evil Within just makes me think Mikami is out of ideas, especially when the death animations are nearly identical to those in RE4. That saw revving sound used to be genuinely scary. Today I respond to it the same way as the sound of some asshole's loud car exhaust. Again, hopefully this is just setup stuff and the content will get more interesting as the game moves on.

Also, moving further along the tangent of things that have nothing to do with anything, why isn't there acceleration on the aiming controls??? Who does that? It feels extremely awkward after having played any video game ever made.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October Spook-tacular Playoffs sudden death update! Styles of the century!

at 6:06 PM
Well the Orioles got swept so that sucks. I was so haunted by their defeat I couldn't even make room for a scary movie last weekend. The only way the Orioles and I can make up our terrible failings to you, the home viewer, is to extend the Scare-tacular Playoffs for another five five five! weeks!!!!!

When I looked at my queue and realized I had horror movies from all but one of the last ten decades, I thought to myself: why not continue for a full century, back to the 1920s? You know, it's pretty crazy that we're a few years away from a new '20s, since that's the first decade people talk about. No, it's not crazy. It's downright insane. Anyway, I didn't have anything from the '40s because what the hell was going on in horror movies in the '40s? Google tells me the war was scary enough that people didn't need horror so I guess that's that. I did manage to find a couple known films that aren't just Universal monster sequels, and thus was the list complete.

It then also occurred to me that I had quite the variety of styles on display, most fairly representative of their decade, so why not try to "catch 'em all"? So for the '10s we've got The Conjuring (2013) to represent the paranormal ghost adventures that have been highly popular lately; in the '00s we have a creature feature, The Mist (2007), even if the I-don't-care-for-it "torture porn" style was the decade's forte; in the '90s there's Event Horizon (1997), a scifi John Carpenter-wannabe like everything else at the time; Parents (1989) should bring some of the dark comedic joy of the '80s; the '70s wouldn't be the same without slashers, so we've got Halloween (1978); heading up the wave of '60s/'70s Satanic obsession is Rosemary's Baby (1968); in hopes to double-cover '50s B-movie scifi and Lovecraft I've got The Quartermass Xperiment (1955); whatever was going on in the '40s, The Cat People (1942) is meant to be a psycho-sexual delight; the '30s brought us the mothers of all franchise monsters, so we'll watch Karloff in The Mummy (1932); and bringing it all back home to surrealist German experssionism we have The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

From here I'll be watching in reverse chronological order - just pretend 2013 accidentally got lost somewhere in the 90s. God knows I did. But THAT is a story for another day.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Not just code - you can't prove games *aren't* art

at 6:00 PM
First let me assuage your fears that the following has anything to do with defining "art" or delving into whether games are "real art" - it doesn't. We're just going to assume that anything can be art ever because it can and who cares anyway. This is more on the subject of what is a medium and the creator/audience relationship (regardless of whether the providence is "art"). Also it's a protracted response to an 18-month old article on a politics site so whatever that means.

So it starts here:

Don't worry, it's short and there's a historical fact or two to learn. To summarize Leibovitz's argument, video games aren't art because they are code and code can be functionally duplicated without actual duplication. Essentially that the experience created by a video game is not one-to-one with the process of creation. 

While I could break that down on about a million levels, what I find downright captivating is the writer's complete ignorance to the distinction between engine and content. For one thing, the music, imagery, and script (story) that go into a game are produced the exact same way as any other artwork, they are not, like, made of code. Yes they are all stored electronically, but duplicating the sprite for Pac-Man is as plagiaristic as copying an .mp3 file and claiming it as your own work. 

Still, let's bring the argument to a more abstract level, as it could be said that the drawings and songs and dialogue are incidental. If we break a game down into component parts we can see that the Leibovitz's approach only applies to half of a work. Let's call the first component a rule set, what might also be designated mechanics or an engine. The rule set governs what elements can be present in the game - inputs, graphics, sounds, avatars, static or autonomous feedback, etc. - and how such things respond and interact. The second formative component is content, the actual realization of the rule set. Content includes the aesthetics mentioned in the previous paragraph and beyond that the actual compositional elements, from levels to characters to actions, all heavily dependent on what the rule set is. Typically it's stuff that falls under a "design" umbrella, be it art design, stage design, or whatever.

Let's look at the example from the article, Pac-Man. While enumerating the entire rule set isn't feasible in this format (that would amount to rewriting the game), we can list a few basic surface level concepts. Pac-Man and four ghosts are the graphically represented characters on the screen. Each character can face in one of the four cardinal directions. When a character is facing in a direction, they move at a constant speed. If the player moves the joystick in one of the cardinal directions, Pac-Man turns to face in that direction. Walls are a graphically represented element on screen. Walls do not move. When Pac-Man is facing against a wall and directly adjacent to it, he stops moving. You get the idea. This part of the game is indeed entirely embedded in code - code being what Leibovitz describes as an instructional set for a processor.

The second part of Pac-Man is the content, the constructs built upon these rules. The graphical representation of Pac-Man is a yellow Pac-Man-looking guy. Walls are blue lines. Most importantly, walls, pellets, and fruit are laid out in corridor mazes of fixed definition. These layouts, visuals, and sounds are immutable elements of the Pac-Man experience; Level 1 always has the same layout, and that layout is not generated by the processor. I have no idea how Pac-Man itself is written, but likely the graphics are stored as image files originally produced by hand in a drawing program and the layouts are stored as some kind of numerical coordinate databases, also generated by hand (or through a graphical editor).

The content stored in those files, though interpreted by code to present an interactive representation, is originally manually created, and a game without those same elements - the same level design - is not the same game. Not anymore so than basketball would be basketball if played with a raw turkey in the snow with 100 points awarded for each basket. Are we to understand that every film directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell is the same? Near equally incredible, sure, but not the same movie.

Compare it to the work of a composer: a note can be represented on the page by its name, by a black dot on a staff, or by a literal representation of the instrument (e.g. tablature), yet a performer (human or electronic) will always play it the same regardless. It's the choice and arrangement of the notes, not their representation, that constitutes composition. No one would argue that "Moonlight" is a different piece written as a guitar tab than on a staff, nor would they argue that it is not unique because of that multiplicity of documentation. Why? Because the sheets are just a set of instructions that explicate to a human how to reproduce a series of sounds. As an .mp3 file is a set of instructions that explicate to a machine how to reproduce a series of sounds. As code is a set of instructions that explicate to a machine how to reproduce a series of sounds, images, and interactions. Cool notes don't make good songs; cool arrangements of notes do. The same goes for games.

Sadly we are living in an age where the primary gaming audience doesn't realize that level design actually exists. See Leibovitz's invocation of Angry Bird - to him that game is expressly composed of flicking a finger and watching a bird eat pigs (or w/e happens in that game). Then again, most film audiences don't realize the difference between explosions and themes, so it's not like gaming is much worse off.

What's interesting in the case of code and games is the utterly abstract nature of the output. Sheet music is limited to producing music. A filmstrip is constricted to projecting a sequence of images. Yet the code of a game can go further to create responses, physics, random events, even intelligences - all those aforementioned elements of a rule set. Thus it's ultimately ironic that Leibovitz in his piece indicts games as constrained by computers, as if computers are mystical black boxes that can't be understood. While the technological prerequisite for video gaming is hypothetically troubling, exacting boundaries on the complexity of materials is an arbitrary science. Bring a filmstrip or vinyl recording 500 years in the past and try to explain it. Just as film has a more primitive form in drama and music in song, so does video gaming in... games. Unless you'd like to make a case that the only arts are the senses, expression takes different forms across cultures and accordingly adapts to technology - eternal persistence is a fallacy. 

Hell, forget history. Literature can't even make it across language borders. Leibovitz's example of Finnegan's Wake is self-defeating in its reliance on the grapheme/phoneme associations of the English language. Though it may transcend vocabulary, the work is still inaccessible to the illiterate and non-English-speakers, and needless to say it couldn't be produced by either categories any more deftly than a monkey could write Shakespeare. To that end a video game can be far more universal than a novel. Educational, technological, and cultural boundaries are inherent in, possibly even necessary to, our current art forms. Given that programming education and computers are so readily available in our culture, the point of accessibility and universality is moot unless we reframe the debate as "are video games art in tribal Maori society in 1783?".

Flawed though the article is, picking out the shortcomings set me thinking on the staged procedure of game development. What's interesting about the division of games into a rule set and content is that it results in two individuated creative processes - there's the rule design in which the tools are created, then the actual construction of the player experience. The first person in the process is essentially inventing the medium for the second, as if redefining the notes a composer has to work with or the colors for a painter. A single game is its own medium in which countless authors can experiment and create, each owning it in their own way. Taken thusly, video gaming as a whole becomes a sort of meta-medium in which diverse unique media - game rule sets - are collected under the principle of interactivity, and the creation of those media is itself a medium. Creating a strong rule set that facilitates expression and creativity is itself an artistic triumph, even if that canvas is only available to a select few. Public level creators, simulation games, and even franchise iteration expose the inspirational power a good set of mechanics can have.

The creative interaction between the development of rules and content is reflected in the relationship of the player and the game. Though the element of audience participation has been ingrained in art criticism for over a hundred years, games bring interactivity to the explicit, conscious level. The player takes progression into their own hands and is free to explore the experience in accordance with their own predilections. The degree to which a game facilitates this and the uniqueness of feedback is a discussion unto itself - the well-known subject of "depth" - but the presence of control at all puts the player into a creative role. Thus the chain of agency is completed and you know games become the greatest artistic super-medium ever conceived by mankind etc.

Monday, October 6, 2014

October Spook-tacular Playoffs: The Mist

at 6:20 PM
October is always a treat, being that the weather is nice and the theme colors are the Baltimore Orioles colors. This is especially important this year because the Orioles are in the playoffs, which also happens in October! The team will gain a significant advantage by seeing their colors all around the country and on the TV for the Halloween season. This is a big factor in baseball and explains how the Orioles colors were originally chosen.

The only way to celebrate this certain-to-be historical playoff run is... horror movies! I'm going to knock five movies off my queue, one each weekend and one each from the last five decades. Then at the end of October we'll have a little "playoffs" where I choose which was best. I think that's how the World Series works? All of the teams play each other in the same game? Those 8-team innings sure can drag on. Here are the movies.

Halloween (1978)
Parents (1989)
Event Horizon (1997)
The Mist (2007)
The Conjuring (2013)

Title: The Mist
Director: Frank Darabont
Writer: Frank Darabont, based on a novella by Stevie King
Actors I know by name: Thomas "I'm Tom Jane" Jane

While my OCD tells me I should have gone in chronological order, I had already watched The Mist by the time I came up with this idea so it was too late. Plus hey this way I can save Halloween for Halloween.

What I know going in: A mist traps a town indoors and there are monsters out there and didn't I see this movie back in the '80s (before I was born)?

From the moment The Mist cuts in on posters for The Thing, The Dark Tower, and Pan's Labyrinth, I knew we were in for some apocalyptic dimension-hopping shenanigans. That's a good omen for me; weird trans-dimensional shenaniganry is my jam, be it Silent Hill, From Beyond, or H.P. Lovecraft. Simultaneously it was an omen of the on-the-nose cheesiness that permeates the entire movie - the classic King explicit reference. That's this movie - solid premises taken in extremely loud directions. Sometimes the arresting volume is satisfying - a stormy opening punctuated by a tree bursting into our protagonist's home, angrily foreshadowing monsters that pierce the dimensional window into our world. Other times it's pandering, like the repetition of the line "something's in the mist!". It also ranges into frustrating, as my reaction to faux-Biblical rant #847 can testify. However stylized it may be, the material sticks to core themes of faith and despair in the face of the unknown - my only real objection is how those questions are resolved.

I probably should expect obnoxiousness from Darabont and King, the creative team behind the most painfully cloying and obvious "classic" of our time, The Shawshank Redemption. The Mist has a lot of wowing "what is a man?" moments, from the illogically blustering lawyer neighbor to the burn victim begging for death to a crowd silently staring down a mother begging for help finding her children. There's this general suggestion that people are acting extra psycho (i.e. hammy) because that's what fear does; the dialogue is extremely on the nose in pointing out "they're scared", "it's okay to be scared", etc. While this gels with the movie's theme of fear as the root of faith, dialogically it has the awkward repercussion of feeling like an excuse for exaggerated characterization. While my brain tells me The Mist is going for bombast, the movie itself tells me it's supposed to be realistic. I prefer to ignore that claim.

A horror/disaster movie posits what happens when ordinary people are confronted with extraordinary circumstances. The Mist shows us fear driving the existing social order to extremes. In the case of resident church-lady antagonist Miss Carmody, it draws forth ultimate faith in despair. She heralds the mist as judgment day: in the giant locusts she sees a Biblical plague, in the military man she sees a sacrificial lamb, in herself she sees a prophet. There's no other side to this character, no humanization whatsoever - when Amanda calmly and kindly suggests she might be projecting her fear, Miss Carmody responds by calling her a sinful whore or something. Likewise, Mr. Law and Order sits staunchly on the claim that there aren't monsters unless he can see proof, even as he sounds growingly hysterical in his attack. This works on the allegorical level where characters are simply incarnations of their metaphorical function, and in terms of story, that's the film's strongest suit. The Mist doesn't falter until it gets to the sympathetic players.

Sorry, no monsters. You can watch the movie or do a Bing (unpopular search engine) if you really want to see them.

Believability is an issue here. Believability is not a question of whether we're dealing with tentacle monsters and that I think the physics of tentacle monsters are sufficiently explained. It's a matter of whether a microcosm rings true. While the aforementioned societal stand-ins work as the pillars of this world, the behavior of normal people is really what's being analyzed. That's where The Mist loses me a bit. That the supermarket crowd is won over so quickly to religious fundamentalism is a strong damnation of human nature and needs sufficient support for me to buy into. What the movie is lacking is any actual character to illustrate that transformation. Miss Carmody was preaching the downfall of man in the supermarket aisles before the mist descended. Everyone else shuffles over in the background as things get worse, the only conversion we see being the dumb guy who gets super-traumatized. I just didn't find a convincing argument that this is what people do - it was all kinda quickly slotted to status quo so our hero would have cultish opposition. I like that as a plot point - the blathering doomsayer is usually the first to go, so having people rally around her is a nice inversion. It's just that the philosophical backbone is more idea than argument.

[major spoilers in the next paragraph]
The hero, David Drayton, works well enough. He's a bit on the uninteresting side, but oh well. He's the everyman in a sea of caricatures. His arc takes him from hope to despair, though its conclusion is a bit too dark to resonate with me. David is a man of action willing to do anything except sit and wait for death, whether it's investigating the generator, going to the pharmacy, or eventually making a run for it. Yet every action he takes makes the situation worse and gets people killed. In the end he chooses to kill his companions and his son rather than wait for the monsters to find him, acting on despair rather than hope. Unsurprisingly, he's a minute too soon - the mist rolls back and reveals that salvation was moments away. So complacent faith in despair was the way to survive? Action leads only to self-destruction? Even if methodically developed, our protagonist's lack of self-awareness strikes me as a bit bitter on the part of Darabont.
[end spoilers]

For all the heightened dialogue and characterization, when the horror gets going, the movie gets damn good. The pacing is spot on, starting with the normalcy of a grocery shopping trip silenced by air raid sirens. We slowly increment from there, taking plenty of time away from the monsters to focus on human turmoil and build the mystique of what's out there. The mid-movie foray into the pharmacy is so Aliens it hurts, but jesus if my skin wasn't crawling at every spidery image, most of all the fate of the still-living MP. And the appearance of the locusts nails everything that I like about this movie's atmosphere - the sense of awe and proportion, the patience of the monstrosities, and the genuinely hellish and end-of-times sensibility. The Mist is a story of anti-survivors, a group of people who could easily stay alive if they weren't so determined to die. That shot from outside the store as the locusts flit and prance carries an ominous natural beauty juxtaposed against humanity tearing itself apart inside a glass cage.

Fine, here are some monsters.

The creature design and effects are largely fantastic as well. Those tentacles get us off to a great disconcerting start - "what are those things attached to?" is a great question left unanswered. We get the predator/prey relationship between the vulture-things and the bug-things and the various size/ages of spiders, hearkening back to what makes the Alien xenomorph such a memorable creation - the naturalistic approach. There's the sense that these are real beings with their own life-cycles, rendering humanity all the less significant. In keeping with the Alien-inspired design, these things are deadly in all kinds of ways, be it acid-webbing, venomous stings, or shredding talons. The spiders are definitely the best-realized of the fiends and are absolutely the high point of the movie, even in spite of the overabundance of giant spiders in fantasy. At the other end of the spectrum, the lurkers in the mist felt kinda lame and almost comical, and I'd have preferred further development of another monster over their perfunctory appearances. Overall, this is a top tier creature feature and worth seeing on those grounds alone. I'm of the opinion that monster movies have largely suffered at the hands of CGI, but The Mist proves that CGI is ready to please (now if we could just get the mainstream off the current ghost movie fetish...).

What I know going out: It's hard to call The Mist a great movie when it has such ugly things to say, but the fact it can even be approached at that level is a testament to its quality. While I'm still left searching for a modern creature-feature adventure, I suspect The Mist will have legs and hope that someday I find a more resonant message at its core. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What I'm Playing, September '14

at 6:00 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Here's a crazy thing I came up with that I probably won't follow through on. Starting now (now being when I had the idea, mid-September) I'm going to have a fixed length queue for games - that is to say, I'm not going to start a new game until I finish one I have in progress. I've listed out at least 120 games I currently have in progress, so it's no big deal. But from now on the Finished/Started lists should be about the same length.

Because of that, I'm adding a new category called One and Done for games I played but have no intention of completing.

By the way, we're now up to date! After two weeks of constant What I'm Playings, there won't be another til the end of October!

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Azure Striker Gunvolt (Nintendo 3DS)

They[who?] said Mega Man was dead, but Inti Creates here proved there are still different directions to take the concept for unique gameplay that isn't nearly as redundant as screenshots will make you think.

Actually this screenshot doesn't make it look all that redundant.

Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (Xbox / Xbox Originals)

One of the best flying game I've ever played, replete with unique enemies and obstacle-filled environments - Pilotwings 64 meets Rogue Squadron. High Road to Revenge never languishes in endless dogfighting, keeping the gameplay mixed up in each mission even as it iterates over the same styles of aerial strikes, escorts, races, and of course dogfights. The game keeps interesting by introducing a more complex setting every couple missions, from the mountainous island of world 1 to a full-on metropolis and finishing with underground caves and ruins. Each style of gameplay takes on a different character dependent on the environment it's set in.

Devil May Cry (PS2)

I'd say Devil May Cry holds up really well, but I never played it back when it originally came out, so all I can say is that were it released today it would still be one of the best action games on the market. In fact, it's particularly refreshing to visit a game that is a.) short (4.5 hours on a first run), b.) mechanically simple, and c.) focused almost entirely on mini-bosses and bosses. The most interesting takeaway for me is that the game feels more like Ninja Gaiden than Devil May Cry 3. While the former goes for environmental variation, wild enemy variety, and challenge through survival, the latter is more about mechanical variation, enemy volume, and challenge through style/score. In fact playing Devil May Cry made me realize Ninja Gaiden is not as original as I originally thought, though that's hardly a bad thing - I only wish there were more action games that took their approach.

Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (NES / 3DS VC)

If it wasn't for the inappropriate name, I wonder if this Alien Soldier-esque boss rush game wouldn't have a cult following, particularly thanks to its consistently unique approaches driven by variations of enemy movement patterns and environmental properties. The game provides infinite continues, so with save states to keep a session going victory is just a matter of mastering one stage at a time, making it a perfect handheld experience. The controls are on the complex side for an NES game and the end-lag on most moves takes some getting used to, but it's all very precise once you get your bearings and every attack will eventually be revealed to serve some purpose.

Games Finished:

Mario Kart 7 (Nintendo 3DS)

I only had this because it came with my 3DS, but it's hard not to enjoy such a perfect game design, even if it's becoming impossible to tell the difference between new courses and repeats. This time around I was most fond of the SNES courses, as they've benefited the most from mechanical changes in the series - taking the continuous 90-degree turns of Super Rainbow Road as one giant drift is really satisfying and not like anything else in the game.

Games Started:

Dark Cloud 2 (PS2)

This is like a treatise on the subject of crafting, skipping traditional character-based role-playing for two separate systems of item customization. The supporting world-building side-game isn't really a sim (there's no passage of time / interaction of creations) so much as it is another free-form crafting system that lets you play in a sandbox and earn points for making things that look cool/balanced. That is to say, it's more like house decoration in Animal Crossing than city building in Sim City. While it passes its time with dungeon-crawling, at its core this is a game about manipulating numeric systems to accelerate progress. If my post about New Horizons didn't make it clear, I enjoy maximization/minimization problems far more than traditional puzzles, so this really works well for me.

One and Done:

Wizards and Warriors 3 (NES)

Played this for platformer-of-the-week night with Greg L. (possibly an upcoming feature? who's to say?!). Wander around a light-on-content world and find self-contained platforming challenges - WiziWar 3 is what you'd get if you took Wonder Boy 3 and cranked up the size of the hub town and downsized the dungeons to 60-second runs. The "guilds" (dungeons) make for neat obstacle courses that iterate over a handful of themes, but they are so hard to find and brief that the game ends up mostly as bland wandering, far more reminiscent of Ufouria than Castlevania II. If you like exploring without much challenge, you might enjoy this, but it's not too satisfying as a platformer.

Super Smash Bros. Demo (3DS)

Who cuts the options screen out of a demo? The default controls are NES-style instead of SNES-style (weird for a diamond layout like 3DS) and I just want to fix it! Mega Man is pretty cool and the AI is still such a joke that I beat a level 9 computer on my very first try at the game with a character I had never played before and controls that were super annoying. Most importantly, when unleashed from an assist trophy, Knuckle Joe still shouts his trademark "KNUCKLE-EEE!" I only listed this because I'm pretty positive I'm not going to get Smash on 3DS - I'm a series fan but it's too intense a game to play on handhelds and I'm happy sticking to Brawl until whenever it is I buy a Wii U.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Discover the Age of Discovery with Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

at 6:00 PM
I can't believe I forgot to mention New Horizons during my post about history games, seeing as it's A.) about an atypical period of history and B.) a really really good game. 

A lot of times it's called Uncharted Waters: New Horizons after the English title of the first game in the series, but the box art disagrees with that nomenclature
The Age of Discovery (1978-2009) isn't exactly the secret history of Addis Ababa. In the United States it's the earliest era of history that gets serious attention even in elementary school because, surprise surprise, it's the first period that can be construed to be about America. I think the only historical facts I remember from old Youth's Benefit Elementary are: "1492 etc." and "the Civil War was fought over slavery". I don't think I ever really 'got' why Cristobel Columbus was such a big deal (and learned later that's because he really wasn't) but I do know one thing: he proved the earth was round. Hang on, spell check is suggesting I correct "he proved the earth was round" to "that was already common knowledge for hundreds of years preceding". But you're used to typos here. As for the Civil War, I still resent that they taught us that. It's such an insidious lie on so many levels. 

But, as the saying goes, that's all uncharted water under the bridge, because there's still plenty to learn about the days of sailing a ship into the blue yonder and discovering New Horizons. Yes, when I got back from my yacht trip to Japan I couldn't wait to open my new SNES game and give it a try. What I found was a delightful mix of Oregon Trail's survivalism, Sid Meier Is Pirates' open-ended variety, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms' deep strategic gameplay. The game is essentially an RPG - you're a little dude of your choosing and the king of your choosing sends you on a quest. The difference here is that the little dudes are (fictional) captains from the (real) major powers of the Age of Discovery with according socio-military-political quests more akin to what you see in 4X strategy games. England's out for blood for oil, the Netherlands is just trying to chill out, and the Ottoman Empire... well, let's not even talk about the Ottoman Empire.

On your way to making history there are a wide variety of tools at your disposal to face the wide variety of challenges at your anti-disposal. Regardless of goals, the same key factors will be in play: you'll have to build up a fleet, man it, keep it supplied, and keep wealth moving if you don't want to end up stranded. From the moment you set sail you need to be tracking the status of your fleet and the waters you're traveling through, not to mention your gold reserves. Unpaid and unfed men won't last long in pirate territory, even if your flagship is brimming with cannons. Nor will a battle armada be capable of crossing the turbulent Atlantic ocean.

Fleet construction, navigation, trading, and turn-based combat form the pillars of gameplay no matter which journey you choose, while the role-playing varies wildly from game to game. Any of the characters can go down whichever road they like - there are no restrictions once the game starts - but different starting conditions and bonuses make each better adaptable to their designated quest (and technically the game only ends when that quest is accomplished).

Mr. Dutch doesn't start with much of anything and doesn't get a lot of help from his homeland, but he has the most straightforward goal - to chart the entire world. On the surface this sounds pretty boring, but it's not as easy as driving around every square of the map and calling it a day. The world, it turns out, is a big place, and lots of bad things can happen on a long journey into unknown territories. You'll need to pick ships that can stand up to crashes and storms - all the speed in the world won't make up for dead wind or a wrecked fleet. It'll take a lot of sailors too, unless you want to get stuck on the banks of the Nile when your whole crew gets eaten by crocodiles. Then there's the matter of budgeting supplies - too much food and water will slow you down and waste space that could be used for cannons, but too little and you won't make it back. Determining these parameters takes a lot of experimentation that'll gradually familiarize you with the logistics, and as you get better you'll be able to successfully manage longer - and more profitable - journeys.

Whether you're building a ship to explore the world or playing a Turkish merchant, trade will be the foundation of your budget. Ships and supplies are expensive, and long voyages of discovery, though they bring back expensive exotic goods, are risky at best. This isn't the kind of RPG where you can grind for cash - you'll need to be able to turn money into more money by wisely buying and selling cargo. The goods available vary from port to port, as do the prices, so you'll need to figure out which trips can turn a profit, while also considering that longer trips will be more dangerous and costly in supplies. Beyond that, flooding one market with a certain type of cargo will devalue it, so you'll need to regularly pursue new routes and keep a balance. Again your fleet will be the bottleneck that controls how much you can haul, how much a trip costs (not only are bigger ships more expensive to buy, construct, and maintain, but they require larger crews who will drain your money in salary and provisions), and how quickly you can traverse destinations. Since you'll probably be sailing the hotly contested seas of Europe, if you can't outrun pirates and foreign marauders, you'll need to be able to defend your toothless cargo ships.

War is unavoidable when playing as Jeff Britain or Sabrina the Spaniard, both of whom start out with powerful fleets and are tasked with increasing their nations' dominance on the continent. International relations can be brokered and allies will leave you alone while enemies harass you and your ports. Winning over ports is primarily a financial struggle, while taking the seas comes down to combat. Attacking enemy fleets will make the world safer for your ships and ports, but can also be used to increase your own wealth and firepower - preying on merchants and commandeering rather than sinking enemy ships is a fast way to vast resources. Once initiated, combat takes place on a grid resembling Fire Emblem or Shining Force where ships launch into turn based battle. Combat is probably the hardest part of the game to grasp, as wind, ship type, cannon type, position, commanding officers, and other factors I'm sure I'm forgetting play a role. If you want to win battles but either can't figure out the fleet situation or just don't have a fleet, you can get tricky and pull up to the enemy flagship for a quick duel. Dueling is essentially a protracted game of rock-paper-scissors (there's also equipment that comes into play) and, while risky, a successful duel means you now own a new fleet. That, of course, means that many more ships to manage.

Rounding out the character set we have James Franco of Portugal - the 'main' character recommended for newcomers, his story has regimented objectives that cover the modes of gameplay - and Pagliacci, the prototypical sad Italian clown. If you hone in on the story objectives and already know what you're doing, you can beat the six campaigns in maybe 10 hours apiece, but you'd also be missing out on all the exploration and experimentation that makes the game so interesting. I put around 30 hours each into Dutch Dave and The Brit, which I think sufficiently covered the game's content. Like any good strategy/simulation/RPG, the devil is in the details and every replay is different, so there's no real 'finishing' with the game.

How much actual history does it teach? It's a mixed bag. This is a great simulator game in that I feel as if I'm managing a fleet spearheading world domination. It keeps me engaged with minutiae while also providing enough autonomy that it doesn't bog down. However, that autonomy means that, while the setting is historical, the sequence of events is not. No Spanish pirate conquered the British empire in 1608. I don't know that the Ottomans had colonies in Africa or the New World, and I definitely don't know any better after playing this game. The ships themselves are so rigidly balanced and standardized that they don't seem representative of any reality, and I'm guessing many of these models did not coexist. While the summaries are short, the "landmarks" - encompassing everything from durians to the pyramids to the North Pole - do a good (ballpark) job of placing many of the discoveries first introduced to Europeans in this age. The major ports and goods of the era and their relative significance is also neat to explore.

I don't know a lot of games that are easily comparable to New Horizons. Though this is technically the second game in the fiveish-part Daikoukai Jidai series, only it and the first (Uncharted Waters) made it out of Japan. Naturally Koei's own Romance of the Three Kingdoms series bears similar strategic gameplay, but it never frees the player from the basic strategy map-and-menu interface and the singular goal of conquest. What makes New Horizons such a unique role-playing experience is the autonomy, the continuous challenge of maintaining a fleet while also having indirect control over the state of the world at large. It's a scope not even most WRPGs touch; a perfectly measured balance of challenging survivalism that delivers more influence and freedom with increased mastery.