Month: July 2015

In Honor of Satoru Iwata, Not Consumerist Fantasy

by Jed Pressgrove

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata is dead. When you look at his history as a developer, executive, and, most importantly, a joyful man, it’s no surprise that perfect strangers have felt intense sadness in the days after his death.

Both Iwata’s amiability and cause of death (cancer) make it difficult to be critical in assessing his impact on video games. Yet it’s important to celebrate what Iwata did versus what some people want him to represent as part of a consumerist fantasy.

Iwata’s passing presents an opportunity to reflect on the role of his enthusiasm and vision in Kirby’s Dream Land, often dismissed as too simple by critics who overlook the elation and originality in the game’s marriage of platforming and storybook appeal. Unfortunately, this artistic milestone hasn’t received as much attention as Iwata’s supposed creation of a “gamer” world. While I have no problem with the term “gamer” by itself, the word has been and will continue to be used to patronize audiences, as in Chris Kohler’s article “Thanks to Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata, We’re All Gamers Now.” Kohler describes Iwata’s legacy as “bringing them [games] to everyone” within the last decade, yet he can only support this notion with a nonexistent scenario: “[T]he perception that games as a medium are not ‘for’ any particular gender or age of person is gone, thanks in great part to Iwata’s pursuit of game hardware that would weaken such barriers and software that would tear them down entirely.”

The suggestion that video games no longer have any possible negative connotations in terms of gender and age is ludicrous, but the bigger problem lies in dollar-sign logic. Intentionally or not, the basis of Kohler’s eulogy has more to do with his belief in Nintendo product than it does with Iwata’s influence. Overstating the effects of Nintendo marketing is different than acknowledging Iwata’s vision for an inclusive gaming mainstream.

Iwata used “gamer” in a context much more articulate than unofficial members of the conservative and progressive gaming parties are likely to admit: “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.” Iwata’s comment is remarkable not only in its admittance of his privilege but also in its separation of the corporate and the personal. His perspective should inspire us to reconsider “gamer” as an internal conviction rather than as a marker of consumptive standing. If we can’t see the humanity in Iwata’s phrasing or in Kirby’s Dream Land and EarthBound, what’s the point of remembering him?

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review — Balancing Act

by Aria Velz

If you ask people to name some of their favorite duos in video games, you might hear Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance, Ellie and Joel, and perhaps Chell and Companion Cube. You probably won’t hear many mention Monkey and Trip from 2010’s underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, yet no other pair embodies the Taoist notion of balance as well as they do. Enslaved’s two-fold strength of emotional storytelling and thrilling action through advanced motion capture wasn’t merely ahead of its time. The technical achievement illustrates a truth in the duality of the protagonists.

Developer Ninja Theory’s update of the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West takes place 150 years in the future. Monkey (given wonderful nuance by motion capture actor Andy Serkis) is in a slave containment cell in an airship. When Monkey tries to escape, he sends the ship toward a crash landing. He then notices a young woman named Trip (played by Lindsey Shaw, who matches Serkis’ performance) using an escape pod, but she refuses to let him on board as the ship crashes. Monkey awakens somewhere in the eastern United States and discovers that a gigantic war has raged through civilization and created a post-apocalyptic world. While “post-apocalyptic world” is often associated with storytelling cliches and can conjure the urban, barren settings of Fallout and Gears of War, Enslaved doesn’t take this approach: its visual splendor predates the style of The Last of Us, with bright colors and plentiful wildlife juxtaposed against entire cities with no people in sight. In Enslaved, the grays and browns that have saturated post-war landscapes come with bright blue skies, foliage climbing on the tallest skyscrapers, and multicolored sunsets. The beauty of this contrast reaches a height as you walk across New York City, a literal jungle filled with life rather than concrete, and wonder if the elimination of most of humanity was the best thing that could have happened to it.

You spend the game playing as Monkey with a diverse pallet of action. Platforming, hand-to-hand combat, shooting, and even elements of racing show up. Keeping with the theme of duality, the combat and story move together in a symbiotic way so that there is never a need to stop and grind or go back to collect more things. Controlling Monkey isn’t difficult, and at times you may feel Enslaved is holding your hand too much. This ease is counterbalanced by the camerawork, which, especially in close-combat sequences, frenetically follows Monkey, making every movement punchier and every victory more satisfying.

What truly elevates Enslaved is the storytelling, namely the relationship between the two reluctant partners in freedom, the strong and brutish Monkey and the savvy and vulnerable Trip. Monkey wakes up to find that Trip has put a slave headband on him, which coerces him to guide Trip to her home village from which she was kidnapped. The headband ensures that if Trip dies, Monkey will die with her. It seems like an action story cliche: Trip needs to get from point A to point B but is afraid to go alone, so Monkey is forced to act as a bodyguard. But Trip’s softer, yielding yin and Monkey’s aggressive, focused yang reflect the desperation of both characters’ need for freedom and propels the game into high stakes and high tension. Although you control Monkey, climbing buildings, smashing robots, and providing all the brawn, Trip is always there to provide information, illuminate points of interest, and hack different devices. As much as Trip is helpful and useful, she also spends many sequences of the game as a damsel in distress, which can leave one hoping for more from her character. After the fifth or so sequence of Trip getting herself into trouble and screaming for Monkey’s help, the tension gets a bit deflated.

Despite this flaw, the two have wonderful chemistry. With Serkin and Shaw, Ninja Theory pushes motion capture performance further than its excellent 2007 game Heavenly Sword (whose abruptly short length couldn’t take its character development far enough to become a hallmark for storytelling in video games). No cutscene feels wasted, no single glance feels forced. The dialogue is impressively scant, the relationship building more about the nonverbal than waxing poetic through words. Trust has to be built through action, as when Trip uses her intellect to streamline a path so that Monkey no longer has to rely on muscle. After traveling hundreds of miles together, the two absorb parts of each other, as emphasized in a turning point when Trip reaches her destination and investigates her home, realizing that everyone in her village, including her father, are gone, rendering her journey useless. The roles of the two characters change: Trip becomes the aggressor, while Monkey calmly supports. The beauty and importance of this scene is that the two discover they are not alone. 

Enslaved’s deus ex machina doesn’t take the focus away from the lessons of this friendship. Monkey and Trip discover that a program named Pyramid is behind the widespread slavery of the planet via a virtual reality reconstruction of the pre-war world based on the memories of one man. In Pyramid’s illusion, there is no sadness or sorrow as the enslaved remain blissful and ignorant of the real.  As Pyramid says to Monkey and Trip, “They are not slaves, they are citizens. They have jobs, they have marriages, they bring up their children, their children go to schools. You have no schools; you have mechs.” While Monkey becomes enraptured by this scenario, Trip, who has almost no more joys in life, rejects Pyramid’s mirage. Trip then destroys Pyramid, but as the enslaved come to, the heroism isn’t obvious to Trip as she asks, “Did I do the right thing?”

Since the sequel to Enslaved was canceled, one might say we will never know the answer. Yet the game ends with Monkey and Trip standing together, ready to face whatever comes, and you understand that their partnership represents an acknowledgement of the real and the false — and the fight to balance them.

Crime Is Sexy Review — Punching Up, Down, or Across

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s not a more vicious mockery of computer game politics than Crime Is Sexy. The sarcastic title has a double meaning, with the more obvious one being the jab at glorified crime series like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami. Developer Jallooligans puts force into this punch by making the 1980s-inspired David Hasselhoff song “True Survivor” the score to its satire. In this context, Hasselhoff’s trivial 2015 Internet hit evokes the same type of retro sentimentality that game development churns out to make its celebrations of illegal activity seem like a part of every happy childhood. The self-aware yet unthinking heroism in “True Survivor” has a parallel in today’s smart-assed consumers who get hoodwinked by industry.

The second meaning of Crime Is Sexy plays off the contracts between players and “Overlords” like Steam, Electronic Arts (Jallooligans steals EA’s logo for an opening credit), and Ubisoft. Jallooligans depicts digital rights management as inherently absurd and, thus, criminal. Crime Is Sexy begins with you filling out credit/debit card information, reading a user agreement that outlines how the “Overlords” own everything related to the game (including you by extension of playing it), and giving away personal details. Hasselhoff’s line “Fighting for life, for good, for all that we believe in!” provides a biting contrast to the lack of action taken against what Jallooligans portrays as make-believe authority.

Crime Is Sexy then opens up as a collection of (supposedly) 1,000 unique games. As you scroll through and try titles such as Middle-Class Conflict Trainer, Bureaucratic Inferiority Non-Game, and Ethnic Downfall Statement (and numerous variations on these and other themes), you find every game is about failure as represented by a block that can’t quite jump to a higher platform. This repetitive send-up, along with an accompanying Kickstarter video pitch suggesting that popular social technology transforms game developers into beggars and swindlers, is mean-spirited but also true to Jallooligans’ class-driven implication that there should be more of a conscious fight from audiences and artists.