Month: March 2014

Rock Bottom Celebrates Life over Death

by Jed Pressgrove

It would be oversimplification to say Rock Bottom makes death in platforming less of a drag. The game does reject the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” cliche, but only to establish its initial platforming concept. To advance to the next level in Rock Bottom, you have to jump higher. To jump higher, you have to find ways to fall to your death. Missing the lowest piece of ground represents the new platforming failure. But unlike a lot of games, Rock Bottom is ultimately about something more profound than the dynamics of video game death.

Other games like Planescape: Torment and The Useful Dead have tried to make death a part of success, but Rock Bottom surpasses these efforts. It’s still generally preferable to avoid death in Planescape: Torment, and unlike The Useful Dead, Rock Bottom doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a proof of concept. The game also doesn’t present itself as a take on another puzzler or punisher. Rock Bottom aims to be a satisfying, unique experience.

Rock Bottom is clearly the work of a sophisticated artist, not a charlatan exploiting the cynical disposition of contemporary culture (see Ground Zeroes). So many gamers and critics think “subversive” design is enough to call something “genius” — that’s why Rockstar can keep insulting the United States and making fools of everyone with Grand Theft Auto, a series that challenges everything but its own flimsy concepts. Rock Bottom isn’t lazy like that; after establishing its atypical death mechanic, it subverts its own main idea. The game’s platforming reaches a new level of articulation: avoiding death to die at the right time. This is how cliches become poetic again.

Developer Patchwork Doll (led by Amy Dentata) has created a platforming masterpiece that some (perhaps even the developer) might not consider a full-fledged game yet. Although Rock Bottom could be expanded with more levels and another gameplay wrinkle, the current version is a rare triumph in gaming. The ending of Rock Bottom is just as satisfying as the journey, if not more so. Like the conclusion of Grand Titons and the entire Castles in the Sky, Rock Bottom emphasizes the freedom of jumping. It’s a simple but elegant reminder that life is meant to be enjoyed despite struggle.

Ground Zeroes Is Bad Television

by Jed Pressgrove

“She also had a message for you: ‘I’m ready for the worst.'”

“Sounded a little too cheerful to me.”

With dialogue like that, would it be surprising if director Hideo Kojima finds inspiration in the dumb nihilism of Telltale’s The Walking Dead? Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the latest video game that wants to be a television show. It goes all out: Kiefer Sutherland, a film actor who became a big television star in eight seasons of 24, voices the protagonist Snake (fans disappointed about the absence of David Hayter fail to see the significance). But the game is more silly than shrewd, as evidenced by the villain Skull Face, a mindless idea that hopelessly recalls Killface from the satirical cartoon, Frisky Dingo. More often than not, Kojima’s jealousy of television leads him to stupidity, not brilliance.

“Open world” continues to be nothing more than an advertising slogan for spoiled yet freedom-starved audiences. Essentially, Ground Zeroes is a collection of episodes that all take place in one location — a stealth sitcom. The episodic nature of Ground Zeroes puts it more in line with Batman: Arkham Asylum than Batman: Arkham City. Side missions — tantamount to television filler — have to be unlocked by beating the main mission, which has more cinematic flair than your average television show (similar to “smart TV” like Breaking Bad). The fantastic production values of Ground Zeroes has led some critics to compare it to the filmmaking of Alfonso Cuaron, a man who has risen to limited fame by copying the superior camerawork and framing of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick.

Rather than do something shockingly different, Kojima hopes to outdo Jack Bauer when it comes to shocking darkness. Ground Zeroes entices its post-9/11 audience — what easy prey! — by blandly referencing real-life politics and war. Kojima believes that acknowledging Guantanamo Bay by itself will allow us to see video games mature before our eyes, but the director’s personal fantasy of revolutionizing video game content somehow results in the gore of Mortal Kombat.

The sight of a tortured woman’s guts in Ground Zeroes signals a new dawn in gamer confusion. At a very basic level, the scene raises the question: am I playing the latest entry in an action franchise or watching torture porn? Others will yell “Misogyny!” as those desensitized to grossness attempt to explain how tacky horror visuals fit into the “Metal Gear Solid universe.” This scene and the rape allusions might make and break connections between people in the video game community. This confusion allows Kojima to continue living his absurd dream of reincarnated film director and savvy television show creator.

Misogyny isn’t the problem with Ground Zeroes. The problem is that some feminists would love Ground Zeroes, and all of its meaningless political posturing, if it didn’t contain a tortured and raped woman prisoner and instead starred an “acceptable” female protagonist. Some gamers, of all political persuasions, have worshiped so much “AAA” and indie cynicism that they are no longer aware of what constitutes an imaginative video game. They don’t care that Ground Zeroes doesn’t innovate stealth (the bullet time is embarrassing shoehorning), contains less humor than the superior Metal Gear Solid III, and feels less fluid than the Arkham games. They just want more crap to talk about before the actual game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is released. Kojima, inspired by addictive and trashy television, is ever willing to serve a well-produced package of crap.

Games That Provoke — Will You Ever Return: In da Hood

by Jed Pressgrove

Our responses to video game content seem to be predestined. We can reasonably predict how we will feel about a game’s violence, a game’s lack of diversity, a game’s language, a game’s sex, a game’s political meaning. The unexpected boldness of Will You Ever Return: In da Hood could temporarily halt this pattern — if only it could get more attention.

Some would find it very easy to dismiss Will You Ever Return: In da Hood immediately. The game opens with Satan proclaiming “I like to fuck bunnies” and shooting his spermatozoa. Unlike with a Grand Theft Auto or South Park entry, you really don’t know what you’re getting with Will You Ever Return: In da Hood, even if you’ve played the first two Will You Ever Return games from developer Jack King-Spooner.

Uninterested in building a franchise, Will You Ever Return: In da Hood plays with our perceptions of reality. As Will Smith from his Fresh Prince days, you search a dreary part of Philadelphia and interact with pop culture icons, the majority of whom are rappers. Although you control a Will Smith made of pixels, many icons in the game resemble their real-life counterparts, like pictures cut out of magazines. This visual approach reveals a pretense in how big-budget graphics are often praised — video game “realism” is only polygon deep. (An acknowledgement of artificiality is also why the Scottish King-Spooner can have an American rapper say “mum.”)

The quests in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood also call attention to the commingling of reality and artifice and how we perceive both as an audience (as Tupac says, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.”). The first significant interaction is with Jennifer Lopez, who tells you she needs crack — a silly fabrication that nonetheless awakens the social judgment that tabloid journalism has taught us. You eventually get caught up in the “war” between Biggie and Tupac, which culminates in a joke straight out of Looney Tunes. Another scenario involves talking with the Wu-Tang Clan about rules of the street. Then there’s a staring contest against Hulk Hogan. This type of satire doesn’t debase pop mythology; it amplifies our understanding of it.

The ridiculous quests are juxtaposed against more pressing social problems. King-Spooner’s gun-control agenda lacks insight, but the game’s attention to poverty and street violence creates a need for catharsis (i.e., the need for Big Willie Style). The historical racial divide highlighted in NPC dialogue (“Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin.”) goes beyond the debates in the video game community. One can learn more about race from the references in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood than from the self-important public relations about diversity and social injustice at the Game Developers Conference.

Perhaps it’s not ironic that King-Spooner uses Will Smith to reconcile reality and artifice. The developer’s critique of Lil Wayne might seem mean-spirited, but there’s a lot of truth to the resolution: “Will [Smith] raps and the world becomes a better place. Children stop to listen and flowers bloom.” It certainly sounds more credible than the Independent Games Festival telling us that the miserable Papers, Please was the greatest thing of 2013.

South Park: The Stick of Truth Review — Product Loyalty

by Jed Pressgrove

The fact that South Park: The Stick of Truth doesn’t suck as much as previous South Park games (and other various licensed games) might seem impressive, but don’t be fooled by advertising that claims old jokes and substandard RPG design is an accomplishment.

In terms of creativity and humor, The Stick of Truth is amateur hour compared to Jazzpunk, which might have been more warmly received if it were based on a popular television show. The idea that Stick of Truth “looks just like the show” and is like “playing an episode” leads to gullible consumer logic: if one enjoys the show, then one must enjoy the game. In reality, the show is much more ironic than the game. I did laugh at some of the old jokes in The Stick of Truth (particularly the anal probing segment), but the constant referencing of episodes serves mostly as a reminder that, yes, many of us find these episodes funny. Do we have to play an overpriced game to know this?

Some might point to the “original” writing in The Stick of Truth. When the game isn’t revisiting popular concepts from the show, it jokes about video game conventions such as the overuse of zombies and the silent protagonist. While these moments can be funny, the game’s repetitious use of Nazi zombies doesn’t subvert anything, and Super Mario RPG’s play on the silent protagonist was more inventive in 1996. The Stick of Truth also has humorous descriptive text, but so did Fallout and Disgaea. Even Canada resembling an old-school RPG feels somewhat expected — Zeboyd Games already transported its protagonists to RPG antiquity in Penny Arcade 3.

The Stick of Truth’s window dressing can’t conceal the game’s lack of compelling design. The first time you take a shit works as a critique of quick-time events; the rest of the game’s button mashing is simply dumb. While the game’s environments are faithful to the show, they often make for dull exploration (appropriately, the journey into an asshole is an exception to the rule). The NPCs also seem relatively lifeless compared to the people you meet in Earthbound. The Stick of Truth does allow a good bit of interaction with special moves, but the game favors repetition over the rule-breaking mentality of Jazzpunk.

Substandard RPG elements make up the rest of the game. Obsidian Entertainment has created an awkward mixture of Super Mario RPG and Fallout: New Vegas. Instead of automatically receiving items after turn-based combat, you are forced to check the bodies of individual defeated enemies for items, even though there is no weight limit. The game’s implementation of Super Mario RPG’s innovative battle system is woefully behind the times. The combos are dull things to perform; apparently, Obsidian forgot about The Legend of Dragoon’s accomplishments. The game’s special moves are more interesting, but once you find a viable strategy, you can ride it the whole way — the enemies provide little variation in challenge. The game also lets you heal and attack in the same turn, so the combat pretty much lacks any semblance of drama. The most challenging part of the game is getting used to its awkward twin-stick fart magic.

Given its lack of great ideas, The Stick of Truth is absurdly playable. The game is a very shrewd cash-in on sentimentality for the long-running television show and RPGs. But it’s no better than the much cheaper and more profound Saturday Morning RPG. I would be surprised if The Stick of Truth is more fondly remembered than cartoons on a Saturday morning.

Money and Popularity Have Game Criticism in Check

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics are drawn to “AAA” and hyped indie games like insects to light bulbs. The urge to discuss what everyone else is discussing is an understandable urge, but we should explore the message that these limited discussions send: money/popularity = greater relevance.

The focus on well-marketed games implicitly comments on what we find valuable in gaming. People often treat “AAA” as a term about budgets, franchises, and marketing, but the capital “A” is clearly associated with “better” (the education system has made sure of that). We expect “AAA” games to be better, and when they are very good, we often proclaim them the best. These expectations, along with the fact that “AAA” games generally cost $60, translate into critical relevance.

Hyped indie games like Braid and Gone Home have somewhat challenged this truism. These games may not be “AAA,” but a lot of people have bought them, so they are relevant and ripe for discussion — some might even nominate or call them Game of the Year. One could see this as an improvement as far as broadening the critical discussion is concerned, but the fact remains that neither “AAA” nor hyped indie games are consistently outstanding enough to warrant critical obsession, unless we believe a lot of discussion automatically makes something relevant or good.

Game criticism should be about fitting ideas and design into an insightful historical, cultural, or political context. When video games were relatively new and a smaller hobby, criticism could focus on fewer games. But now that video games are ubiquitous (developing games is the new playing the guitar), you can only gather so much insight from focusing on “AAA” and hyped indie games. For example, critics have written obsessively about how Bioshock, The Walking Dead, and The Stanley Parable handle the concept of choice, but it’s not because these games have made significant strides addressing or presenting choice (unless you pretend Deus Ex, Fallout, and their predecessors never existed) — it’s because those games are hyped and people are already talking about them. The discussion on hyped games is a cycle of obviousness that ignores video game history and actual innovation.

Meanwhile, a free game like Chris Johnson’s Moirai receives little attention despite its original handling of choice and consequence (first with prepared dialogue options, then with dialogue created by the player, and finally by the decision of another player). Devi Ever’s A Game of Cat and Mouse, another free title involving choice, has inspired some interesting feedback that the developer had to seek out, but the game criticism community is largely unaware of the game’s emotional sophistication. (I would love to see how the smug Stanley Parable would criticize Moirai or A Game of Cat and Mouse. Galactic Cafe should thank God it had Bioshock to pick on — easy target, easy publicity … kind of like Ayn Rand and the United States.)

As video games multiply, critics must do more than comb through games people already know about. They should take pride in reminding people of game history and pointing readers toward exciting and provocative titles outside of the hype. I have criticized writers for citing critic Mattie Brice to forward an agenda, but her advice to broaden one’s video game diet is not a personal agenda — it’s a principle of criticism.

Game Criticism as Bellyaching

by Jed Pressgrove

What is criticism? Every video game critic and reader should answer this question and then be on the lookout for posers. At the risk of oversimplification, criticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial. But when criticism is based on personal thoughts that contradict what we can clearly observe, it fails. This kind of criticism, this bellyaching, might resonate with a lot of people, but it doesn’t illuminate anything — it merely clouds the truth.

Stephen Totilo demonstrates bellyaching in “The Disappointment of Video Game Guns.” Totilo is indeed honest about his personal disappointment with the use of guns in Watch Dogs, but his expression of disappointment is not criticism because it denies several realities. The trouble starts in the third paragraph: “For better or worse, shooting a gun in a game is still the purest—and easiest—way to feel that a video game is interactive. The people who make games know this. They’ve known this since before Space Invaders.”

Reality 1: Not all gamers feel shooting a gun is the “purest” and “easiest” way to interact in a video game.

Reality 2: Not everyone who makes games believes this.

Reality 3: Space Invaders and other early shooters don’t prove Totilo’s point (in fact, Space Invaders is about defending earth from aliens and getting a high score, not “shooting a gun”).

The article then describes how a gun in a game usually means the game will have a lot of shooting (indeed, many games are designed to be shooters or violent crime simulations). Totilo decries the “kill-or-be-killed hostility” that guns in games bring with them. At some point, one might imagine Totilo making a truly provocative statement, but later he concedes “I’ve already played and enjoyed that [‘a Grand Theft Auto of guns’].” Totilo’s complicity with gun violence is simple: he doesn’t have much of a conviction about guns or violence in the first place. He simply doesn’t want Watch Dogs to have more shooting than hacking, and he is criticizing a game that he hasn’t played for this potential imbalance. Remember, no one quite knows what Watch Dogs will be. It’s not a sequel in a long-running series like Grand Theft Auto that thrives on giving gamers what they’re used to. Watch Dogs is a new unreleased game, but Totilo is already disappointed in it.

To be fair, many of us (gamers and critics) have reactions similar to Totilo’s. We are all capable of irrational disappointment, especially if we’re already excited. But game writers have turned normal human reactions into a new low for criticism. Consider that it is not unusual for random unreleased games to be criticized for lacking female protagonists as other games are praised despite a lack of diversity. How is this criticism? It resembles exhaustion. More and more, game critics are expecting developers to create games specifically for them, with no room for negotiation. (Gamer entitlement? How about critic entitlement?)

One can see why some game developers hate the press — real criticism is about reactions, not demands. What makes this bellyaching very troubling is that many critics don’t bother providing hope to the reader. Above and below Totilo’s text is the same picture of a man pointing a gun, a tautological trap. The irony is that game critics are often pointing water pistols.

Dominique Pamplemousse Throws a Pity Party

by Jed Pressgrove

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” encourages political correctness from those in the know, not empathy and understanding. As the Independent Games Festival awards get closer, game critics make sure that nominees like Dominique Pamplemousse receive enough hype not only to legitimize the IGF competition but also to trumpet their sensitivity to genderqueer folk. Meanwhile, the ignorant remain ignorant and perhaps even indignant.

Developer Deidra Kiai should be commended for the work and risks involved in the creation of a point-and-click musical. Almost everything, including the claymation and singing, was done by Kiai, though the game’s presentation sometimes suffers from a lack of comedic timing. Dominique Pamplemousse also admirably forgoes the process featured in adventures like The Shivah. For example, you instantly move from location to location, so there’s no silly map to speak of.

The game’s cynicism, however, nearly eliminates its technical and creative charm. The pretense of being “about gender and the economy” is suited for headlines rather than gamer consensus. The first mistake is making genderqueerness a bad punchline. As a protagonist, Dominique Pamplemousse doesn’t reveal anything insightful about gender; the character is merely an annoyed victim whose complaints fail to articulate what the choir (self-congratulatory critics) already knows. To some people who don’t mind the choice of a men’s or women’s restroom, Dominique might come across as a weird joke. One could attack people for this perspective, but the game fulfills dismissive attitudes on both sides as opposed to shedding light on the limitations of binary thinking about gender.

Domininque Pamplemousse also wants pity for the struggling working class, but its cynical approach lacks perspective. Economic deprivation is portrayed as a given, not a result of complex environmental and social factors. The story implies that the protagonist could have been economically secure if a college idea hadn’t been stolen, but the game’s usage of Auto-Tune singing is depressingly pathetic, whether as a joke, plot device, or commentary on identity. The game’s two endings deliver the ultimate bleak message that morality and happiness are impossible to maintain in tough times — just more sentimentality for a spoiled American society that confuses the Great Recession with the Great Depression.

While Dominique Pamplemousse has its endearing moments (such as the bagpipes joke and the ending credits sequence), all of its cynicism adds up to a plea for pity, a surefire way to kill laughter and prevent catharsis. The game lacks the hope and dreams of Grand Titons and keeps many in the dark about social realities that aren’t going to be obvious to everyone.