aesthetics

Remembering The Wretched Firewatch

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome.

Dear Chris,

More than a year ago, you responded to my 2016 review of Firewatch with a letter titled “A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch.” Before I respond to your thoughts on my review and Firewatch itself, I must say that nothing between 2016 and today has convinced me to stop hating the term “walking simulator.” I don’t believe it’s an acceptable descriptor, as you suggest. I believe it’s an abomination similar to Metroidvania (which gives too much credit to Castlevania), roguelike (used by, for the most part, people who have never played Rogue and thus don’t know what it’s “like”), shmup (toddler’s gibberish), and Soulsborne (what did Bloodborne even accomplish that warrants this reference?). The only game I’ve played that follows the implications of “walking simulator” is Manuel Samuel, a comedy in which the player controls the individual legs of a contemptible rich snot.

At the same time, I realize you are more interested in the games that get the clumsy label rather than the clumsy label itself. I, too, admire Proteus, which I called the ninth best game of the 2010s. Dear Esther? Not so much. I wasn’t fond of Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and What Remains of Edith Finch for various reasons. But I do try to recognize titles in this genre that don’t receive the attention they deserve. On that note, if you haven’t played Cosmo D’s brilliant games — Off-Peak, The Norwood Suite, and Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 — they come with my highest recommendation. If only those games, along with Proteus, could steal the spotlight from inferior critical darlings.

I appreciate your complimentary tone about the conclusions in my Firewatch review. I appreciate it all the more considering that I don’t think the review is one of my stronger articles. I still feel the review’s proclamations in my bones, though. While I agree with you that Firewatch’s subject matter is less juvenile than that of your average “recycled action movie,” Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman’s handling of the subject matter doesn’t strike me as that mature, especially with the loony Vietnam vet stereotype tying everything together. The game doesn’t really confront anything outside of the lurid elements of its farfetched plot. It makes references to early onset dementia because the creators were too scared to depict it (“It is impossibly hard,” the text-heavy introduction impotently declares). It teases sexual chemistry between two people because the creators lacked the basic inspiration to showcase human interaction. The dialogue demands our attention when we play, but there’s no meaningful takeaway from the words.

Not unlike extravagantly detailed settings in big-budget releases, the “beautiful world” in Firewatch is a distraction from the game’s fundamental lack of humanity. Notice, too, that we can go on about the pretty colors and pretty trees and so forth, but we have trouble answering this question: what does the setting communicate? As we both agree, it’s relentlessly artificial. I would argue it’s far worse than a national park in the United States. If you wander from the prescribed paths in Yellowstone, you might end up on an animal’s dinner menu. In Firewatch, there is no danger, there is no wild, there is pretty imagery that fails to convey why people find the natural world spiritually rejuvenating.

The camera mode in Firewatch is an insult. Do we have nothing better to do than take fake pictures of fake woods with a fake camera and show them off on social media, the fakest of all communities? According to the creators of Firewatch, we should marvel at the fakeness because it is there to be consumed and recorded and gawked at. But again, I ask, what does it mean? What are the artists trying to do?

My best guess is they were setting the table for nihilistic shock value, which is the very card Rodkin and Vanaman played in The Walking Dead. The beautiful world — the one we were encouraged to fetishize with the camera — goes up in flames. Cue our emotional devastation. That is, if we’re not keen about the tricks that Rodkin and Vanaman like to pull. If we have any exposure to the masterpieces of “literature, theatre, or film” (to borrow your examples), we will likely stop caring about the characters and story in Firewatch once it goes off the rails into risible B-movie territory, well before the disastrous finale. So our main attachment to Firewatch ends up being the pretty woods, and boy, do they burn well, says Rodkin and Vanaman.

This is why it would have been a critical failure on my part to overemphasize the beauty of Firewatch’s setting. I would have been selling the crud that Rodkin and Vanaman want everyone to swallow. My issue as a critic in this context has little to do with the possible aesthetic glory of a “walking simulator” and everything to do with my distaste for charlatans who wouldn’t understand Mother Nature if a moose attacked them as they gazed at a mountain in Montana. If you want aesthetics, play Proteus or Off-Peak. If you want to watch trash burn, play Firewatch.

Sincerely,

Jed Pressgrove



Super Mario All-Stars: Aesthetics Be Damned!

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the third essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

We often praise Super Mario Bros. for its gameplay and forget about the power of its graphics. Take another gander at level 1-1. The pixel art, while not crude, is loud. There’s a roughness and hardness to the world. The ground seems impenetrable. The clouds look like they’d stop airplanes. Without this overall aesthetic of solidness, I doubt players would feel as empowered and elated when they shatter brick blocks. The abstract appeal of becoming a large Mario is to impose one’s physicality on ostensibly unshakeable matter. As you run through 1-1, the flat aspect of the visual style bolsters the everyman’s surreal fantasy. A fully grown Mario rivals the size of clouds and small hills.

The color palette in 1-1 is limited but effective. The unvarying blue is pleasing, welcoming. Along with the greens, the blueness provides a lively contrast to the drab mustard brown of the blocks beneath and above Mario. In other words, there is hope and fun to be had within the unbending, dull status quo.

Without the picture that 1-1 paints, level 1-2 would have far less visual and emotional significance. As a juxtaposition to 1-1’s vision of an exciting dream, 1-2 functions as a wake-up call to danger. The black abyss. The blocks and Goombas drained of their original colors. The coins, pipes, and Mario himself may retain their brightness, but in general the inviting hues of the previous stage become a distant memory in mere seconds.

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If the first two levels of Super Mario Bros. demonstrate how sights inform feelings, then those same levels in the Super Mario Bros. remake from Super Mario All-Stars demonstrate how the game industry tries to anticipate and exceed consumer expectations. For the consumer’s sake, a remake shouldn’t change too much, particularly when it comes to holy gameplay, but the product should look new and exude contemporary logic. Let’s imagine for a moment what a consumer, as a consultant to Nintendo, might have said about the visuals of the first two levels of the original Super Mario Bros.:

There’s nothing going on in the backgrounds.

The ground looks like building blocks.

The color scheme is too simple.

It looks like Mario is as big as clouds.

There’s not much detail.

Everything looks hard as a rock.

In the Super Mario All-Stars remake of the NES classic, a type of order has been applied to the stages. In level 1-1, there are humongous, pillowy clouds — with patronizing smiley faces, no less — and towering hills in the background, so Mario can never look too big when compared to the features of the landscape. In the foreground, Mario and his enemies clearly travel on top of grass, and in case that’s not convincing enough, you can also observe brown soil. Every once in a while, Mario will pass by a patch of tall grass blowing in the wind. The original 1-1 resembles a dream, but the remade 1-1 resembles a bonafide environment that can impress boardroom fellows and unthinking spectators.

With level 1-2, the remake doubles down on its rejection of emotional potential in favor of more rational visual presentation. The pitch-black darkness is gone. Instead, the background recalls the aspects of a mine: a wall of rocks, wooden beams, clumps of vegetation, and lanterns. While the blocks and Goombas have a bluish-gray hue as in the original Super Mario Bros., the increased visibility of the stage provides a newfound comfort that lessens the sense that Mario has entered a very dark place. Because one can see as many details in 1-2 as one could see in 1-1, the contrast between the stages is severely compromised. As a result, the transition to 1-2 in Super Mario All-Stars registers as natural and normal and explainable. The uplifting tone of 1-1 is dampened, as opposed to being stamped out.

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The most egregious aesthetic misstep in Super Mario All-Stars comes in World 8 of the Super Mario Bros. 3 remake. The original World 8, appropriately named Dark Land, is one of the most intimidating settings in video game history. Both the world map and the levels within Dark Land utilize black to an astounding degree, as if a shadow-spreading virus has infected everything. At one point in the segmented map, the player can only see Mario thanks to a spotlight. No Mario experience is as dread-inducing.

Super Mario All-Stars revises this unforgettable location. Call it Not-So-Dark Land. As with level 1-2 of the Super Mario Bros. remake, the darkness of World 8 is watered down. The evidence begins with the initial world map screen. In the original Super Mario Bros. 3, pitch blackness hangs around the fires that light up the paths that Mario must traverse. In the remake, the only black that can be seen is outside of the very frame of the map!

The remake’s failure is more obvious in World 8’s introductory level. In the original Super Mario Bros. 3, this level’s absence of light is so perpetual that you can’t distinguish the outlines of black objects like Bob-ombs and cannons unless an explosion occurs. In the Super Mario Bros. remake, a shadowy haze hangs over the top of the stage, but otherwise, you can see quite well. Check out the grass. Check out the soil. Check out the dormant volcanoes. No fear, no mystery, no inconvenience. The Bob-ombs have been made purple, for crying out loud.

From there, the remake’s World 8 interpretation, if you can even call it that, gets worse. Most levels are quite visible, raising the question of why Nintendo continues to bother with the Dark Land moniker. Due to an out-of-place background and heavy usage of the color green, a later stage looks like a jungle from a different world. In another head-scratching example, the remake retains most of the darkness in one level but destroys a strong element of dissimilarity by replacing white sand with yellow sand.

There is no credible artistic reason for these changes. Only two conclusions make sense to me. First, the makers of Super Mario All-Stars were deathly afraid of contrast. Second, the makers of Super Mario All-Stars wanted to make World 8 more approachable and digestible. Either explanation points to a lack of courage, if not a lack of appreciation for an all-time great platformer.