Wednesday, June 29, 2011

hands, idol.

i have spent a lot of time in 2011 playing video games. i wouldn't say it's one of my passions, but it's definitely a story telling medium that i've come to appreciate since i was younger, and beyond that, they can be entertaining on SO many levels beyond telling a story. in fact, sometimes it's a relief to be blasting dudes with guns bigger than my torso because of some vague shadow group they belonged to or were hired on by. and they were in my way.

i spent forty something hours on mass effect 2. as commander shephard, i was trying to save the human universe from collectors who were stealing human beings and using their bodies as husks and as a model on which to build a gigantic reaper, which would then be consumed with destroying all organic life within the galaxy. ya know. that's what i did. i think what got me so deeply involved in this game was the fact that a massive portion of the game is spent building your team. which was a throwback to possibly my favorite game of all time, final fantasy vi. building this pretty major relationship with the various men and women you pick up and aid ends up coming to a massive head in the final drive towards the final goal, when you have to select different individuals to lead parties, perform specific tasks, and fight alongside you based on their previous and current training. you're also given the option to go on character-specific loyalty missions which are requested specifically by the individual characters which can bring them closer to you by showing you're willing to go to another level for your crew. dope game. third one is coming out next year, probably around march. whole thing looks a little different. i've heard there is going to be a smaller crew overall, so that you can build richer relationships with those with you. i was a little bummed to hear that the other characters who i'd just fought side by side with wouldn't be playable in the new one, but bioware announced that they'd be back in some level. stoked. gameplay in the game actually wasn't all that great, to be honest. it was standard cover based shooting, accented with different powers like fireballs, shockwaves, gravity altering singularities, etc. but what kept this game a staple in my daily life was the size and depth of that universe, and the ever building and changing relationship with everyone i'd met and brought along in the game. phenomenal.

one thing i really admire about bioware is the fact that they are almost tolkienian in their chronicling of their worlds. even within the dragon age series, i felt i was reading pieces of information on races, areas and individuals that i'd never meet or be affected by. wars happened in which the result barely affected the present any longer. but they wrote about them. created heroes. killed heroes and kingdoms. and in mass effect, they've done the same. entire races are described in pain staking detail. information about the gravity of the planets are provided, the evolution of those races to their current appearance and economy, interactions with other races. and even in little ways, it will always be accurately portrayed in the dialog between two characters. when a character doesn't react or interact in a way you'd expect with another character of another race, you're not put off or calling it out. you can see within the choice of words that this whole process is one of distinction. the way the conversation plays out is completely believable.

the only reason i didn't dive directly into a second play through of mass effect, was because as i was finding myself concluding that story, another one was coming out. and this next undertaking was l.a. noire. it's a 40s detective story told in the motif of a lot of the books and films of the time. i don't have to illustrate it to you. the major part about this game was its innovation. and it all began at the visual level. they did this entirely using motion scan technology, which is used to capture the real actors facial expressions from a multitude of angles to really flesh out and embody the entire visage of the character. i can tell you with no exaggeration (possibly from the hype that i'd been building for it on my own) that when i saw in-game footage of it more than half a year before its release (and the first that many had ever been exposed to) i got a little choked up. legitimate body tension. i was floored. but still, i was unsure how they were going to actually pull the game off. sure it was pretty, but what am i going to be doing? how is this going to happen?

and that's actually what stole the show once the game was in my hands. an hour or two in, you quickly forget about the visual innovations and all the ground they're breaking there, because the gameplay is unlike anything i've done in a game before. your cases involve you finding clues within a crime scene, followed by interrogations of witnesses or people of interest. occasionally, there will be a more traditional chase sequence or some kind of action event that will finish up the case. this is fine. it brings you back to a place you're comfortable, you feel in control once more, and also, what's more, it makes sense when they throw it in there. it feels like an honest, pivotal moment.

you're a veteran who's become one of the last good police officers in the city. you're also a human being. the cases you see affect you, bring you different places in your life. but more importantly, you're doing your job with integrity, the right way, and diligently, regardless of the trouble you're given while it's going down. good, solid story.

the thing that i genuinely loved this game for was the way that it made people talk and think about the medium. i talk to people all day about these games. all day. and in a landscape that is completely dominated by first person shooters (namely the call of duty series), this one stepped up to the forefront and fearlessly threw most of the guns to the side. even many games within this sandbox genre are more open ended random encounter based shooters. but not l.a. noire. you thought about these cases while you were playing them. you were retaining detailed information not only to get a better idea of the story line, but also to succeed within the narrative. the best story was told when you were properly interrogating your witnesses, using every clue at your disposal, and recognizing the ticks that your questions had spawned, and knowing when and where to pull your ace in the hole.

a lot of times, i felt beaten down by this game, even though i was still getting to the root of a lot of the crimes at hand. and so were many others. many people genuinely wanted to get better at examining the crime scenes for every clue, to get as much information from each spoken eye witness account. you could hear people wanting to get better at what had become their virtual job because it was almost making them feel a dedication and an obligation to the city and its inhabitants. the pulse of this game was rich. something has to be said for the writers of this game, and how they had to think and speak directly to los angeles, and to the set piece that had been laid out for them, and not worry about what video gamers were going to think. this wasn't a game written or produced for gamers. it's for people who want a virtual experience, and all that comes from it. this was an entirely new type of storytelling.

i then played infamous 2 which is a much more traditional entry into the sandbox genre. it's a sequel, which lends itself to following a ton of already laid down mechanics, and even plot points and story arcs. this was not much different than any other sequel that the genre tends to offer up. though there's something about this type of gameplay that i cannot deny. the endless collecting, the massive scale, and the continuous character skill development makes me want to perpetually check in to the game, although i'm essentially repeating many of the same actions.

had i simply carried through with the core storyline, i could have had it buried in about 7 hours. you learn more mysteries about your powers (lightning and electricity based control, as set up in the first game of the series; a fantastic superhero origin story) and how to continuously upgrade them to charge a device which is meant to be able to strip powers from a massive "conduit", which is what they call human beings who are capable of wielding such powers, in the event that their inherent powers are eventually awakened. this one antagonistic conduit is titled "the beast" (lame) and is about the size of several buildings and is laying waste to the entire east coast. all the while, a preacher turned warlord is commanding gangs of mercenaries to stop you and is enslaving the faux new orlean's populace as well. you eventually get enough power to stop these villains, but consequences abound. depending on whether you've followed the good or evil storyline, the outcomes are vastly different, and have ripple effects, worldwide.

being the type of player, though, that isn't content to just follow the 20% of the video game that the story encompassed, i needed to recapture every piece of the city, i needed to gain the respect of the people (i played through the good storyline), and i needed to comb every corner of every street to make sure that i had obtained every piece of the underground, parallel story line that you can uncover by pieces together recorded messages between the support characters. i could find things to do forever in that game. something about that core gameplay style screams out to me, and i can't put it down. i'd say this game wasn't as good as its original, but its plot points were a little larger, and had a much bigger impact.

something that stood out to me in a big way was the fact that so many who had played and enjoyed the first one and didn't like the second would cite the character's new voice as a major reason they couldn't relate to the game. it's interesting that they had meshed, and gotten invested in cole (ironically named the same first name as the protagonist in noire) on such a level that something as minor as a voice could turn someone away from a game overall. this is a place that i'm sure many felt video games could never reach. a common case of "the other darrin."

and this is what i'm playing now. fear 3. i don't think i like it. i'll probably finish it, just to know what's going on with the storyline in the series. i'll try to break it down, but i'm not even sure i'm following it very closely. you play nameless "point man" who was sent in months ago to take down paxton fettel (who ends up being your brother) who had set up a psychic link with a hired mercenary squad. also helping fettel is a paranormal entity, little girl alma. in the second game, you control another guy, who alma is strangely drawn to, and she ends up somehow psychically getting impregnated by him. and now in the third game, you return to where these actions occur, and are trying to subdue alma from having this child. she's having massive contractions which are crushing the city. and if she has this child, it will be the embodiment of massive evil and suffering, and mankind will be ravaged by the child.


this is the perfect example of a game that didn't need to be made. i genuinely loved fear 2. from a gameplay standpoint, it was a very tight first person shooter with a nice bullet time mechanic, had great set pieces and well-balanced weapons and enemies. aside from being a shooter, it also was going for a survival-horror type thing which was pulled off perfectly. i can remember many conversations with friends about the school, wherein while they were playing that particular level, they genuinely wanted to go no further, knowing things were going to be messing with their mind. the game borrows a lot of themes from japanese horror, from the timing, to the off-angle shots of what is coming for you. also, misdirects and false reliefs were a major part of what made the game so stressful. a great, true fear experience, if you allow yourself to get immersed.

and what it comes down to is ideas, and the desire to pull them off. playing this game feels like you're hearing a story told by someone who read that it might have been told to someone who thought it was an okay story from someone who somewhat liked it.

there's guns and a ghost? here's alma? oh, and sometimes, you go slow.

this game had one solid moment, and it came in one turn of a corner about 3 hours into the game. the idea was then reused throughout the next few levels. they introduce enemies who act more as obstacles than functional inhabitants of the game world. if your ideas aren't strong enough to fill a concept from birth until conclusion, keep building ideas. what this game could have been is the remainder of the final pieces of an idea that barely came together in the end, or a full 10 hour experience built around a few neat ideas a writer had floating around. but what's more than likely the truth is they wanted to cash in on a franchise that has a fairly loyal fanbase that still had an open ended story with a few more chapters to be adlibbed. strong ideas only look strong when they're complete. beyond that, i've always felt that they get dragged down by the mediocre ideas you've used to vehicle them outward.

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