Month: September 2016

Inside Review — Uncreative Nihilism

by Jed Pressgrove

Platforming is dead (that is, boring), or at least it appears that way for the majority of Inside as you guide a mysterious boy in danger. Like developer Playdead’s previous game Limbo, Inside is a side-scroller in which you solve puzzles, often through dying and retrying a section of a chapter. But whereas Limbo maintained interest with ideas like a parasite that forces you to move in a certain direction or a switch that causes the entire level to rotate, Inside too often sticks to tedious chores such as dragging items into position so you can jump to higher platforms and swimming away from an enemy who can kill you instantly. (Inside has nothing on Solomon’s Key, Lost Vikings, or One Fine Day.)

The best parts of Inside are the weirdest, such as when you have to lead about two dozen human-like experiments or when you are absorbed, in the last chapters, into a blob with human appendages. Outside of these experiences, director Arnt Jensen tries to coast on the morbidity he established in Limbo. One should question why, for the second game in a row, Jensen insists on allowing the camera to linger while the child protagonist meets his doom in any of the articulately constructed death sequences. This instance of repetition, as in the more uninspired platforming sections, seems to point to an easy business model rather than any personal or artistic motivation, in contrast to Edmund McMillen’s undeniable, controversial thematic purpose in The Binding of Isaac via Zelda-inspired dungeons. Inside’s child endangerment will equal automatic deep meaning for many critics and audiences.

Both Limbo and Inside emphasize the feeling of being trapped in a dark place, but the latter adds ambiguous science fiction. The game implies the boy you control is science gone wrong, and the aforementioned blob brings to mind the monstrosity in the final third of the anime film Akira. “Look at what humankind has done” is an intended moral reaction in Inside, but that doesn’t mean the story is even halfway done right.

Why let the boy be absorbed by the blob and have the creature die once escaping from “inside”? Jensen and company hammer you over the head with fatalism beforehand, only to offer the disappointment of pathetic death as freedom. Inside’s primary ending doesn’t have the conviction of the conclusion of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which illustrates what its protagonist represents in a culture and time and how his death reveals the misguided philosophy of a machine-like institution. Because you rarely have a sense of what’s going on within the boy, or within any of the human-like experiments, Inside’s primary ending suggests there is no meaning to struggle, that if you want to get out of the system, you might as well die because you are a shell. This inarticulate statement risks being seen as profound to an indie gaming scene prone to self-pitying, half-assed intellectualism.

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Vogel’s Lack of Appreciation for Video Games and History

by Jed Pressgrove

For a large part of “No, Video Games Aren’t Art. We’re BETTER,” game designer Jeff Vogel struggles to describe video games in a way that doesn’t sound like a superficial, ahistorical commercial. His confused smugness comes in its purest form when he suggests “we game designers” naturally aim at something higher than art. Like many hype-spinning commentators, Vogel doesn’t appear at first to understand what makes video games different from each other, much less from similar interests.

According to Vogel, video games can achieve “transportation,” which he defines as better than art. He uses the new Doom game to illustrate this concept. In a reference to the comic Penny Arcade (which has some of the worst comedic timing of all time), Vogel is fine with calling Doom something as vacuous as “playable sugar.” Yet he moves away from what that phrase might imply, saying that he was “utterly transported” when he fought three bosses in Doom. He then cites a unique feeling of being “consumed” and “drained” after expending the effort to defeat the bosses.

Vogel’s claim seems to be that art can’t cause any of these feelings, but this notion is easily rejected. A movie can transport you to a different time and place, one might describe a pop song as “playable sugar,” and a rock show can consume and drain concertgoers. Even if we limit the discussion to video games, the first Doom did everything better than the new Doom, excluding weapon design. There is nothing unexpected about doing one arena fight after another in a Mars or Hell setting, but it’s in Vogel’s best interest as a self-important game designer to bullshit readers into thinking the new Doom does something historically significant with a few boss fights. Maybe Doom does accomplish something different, but Vogel can’t explain why with vague terms that are applicable to all types of art.

Ironically, in stating it’s “dumb” to feel proud after beating a boss, Vogel dismisses one of the more distinct things a video game like Doom might have going for it, at least in comparison to movies, songs, books, paintings, and other things that are often labeled art. The easiest way to understand popular appeal of video games is to think in terms of art, puzzles, and sports, with the third term leaving plenty of room for pride after defeating an opponent. But Vogel has already made up his mind that video games represent some kind of magic that has little relationship to anything before it. (One wonders if he would be able to consider that Michael Jordan is an artist who beat people on the basketball court.)

In arguing that the new Doom sets itself apart without showing how it’s different than previous first-person shooters, Vogel fails to acknowledge the history of the very form he praises as singular. Vogel’s flippancy toward serious evaluation of video games pops up several times after his non-analysis of Doom. He says “We offer Experience,” apparently trying his hand at mindless marketing talk. He also says if you are looking for “artistic accomplishment” and “creativity,” you should look at any “Best Games list from 2014 or 2015.” First of all, why should any reader automatically assume a list from a random game critic will identify artistic accomplishment or creativity? Second, why only from 2014 or 2015? The suggestion leaves room for the common misconception that games from previous decades don’t have aesthetics, expression, and messages–that they cannot be appreciated as art, that they are different from art. Later, Vogel says he likes games such as Gone Home, Her Story, and The Beginner’s Guide that borrow “storytelling techniques from obsolete art forms.” Nevermind what these techniques or art forms are. Nevermind whether Gone Home and company actually introduced these borrowed techniques to the video-game form. Vogel again prefers to condescend, not articulate.

Vogel’s take on The Last of Us, which appears in the middle of his post, fares better than what precedes it, if only because he becomes more specific. His main point follows: the “actual game part of” The Last of Us (the action, not the cutscenes) is what makes the game special, as it causes us to be momentarily tricked “into thinking we’re struggling for survival.” This theory aligns with Defender creator Eugene Jarvis’ idea that tapping into players’ “inner Neanderthal” keeps them coming back for more. Vogel excitedly talks about the power of the developer to create “addiction machines” and “compulsions.” It’s even hard to tell whether he is joking when he says, “I want to absorb you to the point where it threatens your marriage and your livelihood.” Vogel’s ideal game is one that transports you, i.e., makes you forget the real world and enter a new world, and turns you into an addict (an effect, I would point out, that many television shows and pop songs have on their audiences).

With this ideal, we see the true colors of Vogel’s misleading post. He claims he is arguing in favor of video games as a whole and as a unique form, when in fact he places more value on “gamey games” and scrambles to articulate how these types of games have no historical precedent. In doing so, Vogel denies the history of art, games, and sports. If you want to appreciate video games, it should go without saying that you have to honestly compare them to each other, whether they came out in 2015 or 1975, and to other things that compel, transport, consume, and addict audiences.

Kirby: Planet Robobot Review — Kirby’s Power Fantasy

by Jed Pressgrove

The power fantasy is often associated with dominance, especially the masculine sort. As such, people don’t tend to connect the puffy and pink Kirby to such a fantasy. But this year’s platformer Kirby: Planet Robobot has a suggestive, over-the-top reversal: the protagonist, while operating a mecha suit, literally screws into the final boss, eventually penetrating the enemy and passing all the way through.

This display of brute, phallic force from the cute hero rejects the misconception that the mecha-suit action in Planet Robobot is a gimmick. While it’s true many Kirby games have been easy and thus could be said to make one feel dominant, Planet Robobot has a graver tone, thanks to its two-legged machines that recall similar but briefer moments in Mega Man X and the urgency of the “Heart of Steel” theme (Hirokazu Ando’s soundtrack is one of the best of the year). Kirby’s Dream Land 2 already played with the notion of the hero becoming more powerful by attaching himself to different animals, but these occurrences, such as when Kirby rides inside a fish out of water, were sometimes more awkward than empowering.

With the mecha suit in Planet Robobot, you can destroy things that seem immovable, like the automobiles in the game’s second world, Resolution Road. Even though you can feel the weight of the suit, your mecha movement is quicker and more precise than the case of the power armor in Fallout 4. There is also a version of Kirby’s suit that allows you to cruise as an automobile and jump from plane to plane, supercharging the foreground-background dynamic that felt tacked on in Kirby Triple Deluxe.

In the concluding series of bosses of Planet Robobot, the power fantasy is subverted before the wild climax. The boss stage of the sixth world leans as you walk, producing disorientation that clashes with the killer efficiency you felt in previous levels. With Kirby looking up as you ride an elevator, the loss of his dominance is apparent (appropriately you can’t move Kirby during this sequence), as is his sense of awe at what he is about to face. You end up fighting a more intimidating version of the classic Kirby villain Meta Knight. (I destroyed him as cheaply and desperately as possible with the poison ability, staying high in the air and flinging life-draining chemicals to the floor.)

The next boss flips the power dynamic further. As $10,000 bills rain down, the battle evokes white-collar menace on par with the cigar-smoking Fat Cat, the great final enemy in Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. In a dialogue sequence, this Planet Robobot boss confirms his view of your subordination with racist language (“wild natives”). The very final boss form can actually swallow and spit you out; the camera follows you as you are swallowed to emphasize powerlessness and humiliation. All of this helps emphasize the game’s ultimate catharsis of screwing your foe to death, making Planet Robobot both an essential take on Kirby and a shining example of creativity in 2016’s big-budget game malaise.