Saturday, October 31, 2009

More about games and fear: Paranoia, helplessness, and Solid Snake's terrifying mullet

It's Halloween, the day when all the children of America, enjoying a privilege usually limited to mob enforcers, governments, and nomadic Iron Age horsemen, don threatening-looking garments and knock on my door to demand that I hand over valuable material resources, lest I end up suffering some sort of ill-defined but ominous harm at some point in the future. This seems like a good time to make another venture into actual commentary about games and add something to my previous post about horror games and the creation of fear.

As I said last time, my single most intense moment of fear in a game was probably the bath tub scene in Eternal Darkness, which I think is a pretty commonly cited example among gamers. In terms of total experience, however, my most frightening game is sort of an unusual one- Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. If for some reason you're avoiding spoilers for an extremely well-known and endlessly discussed game that came out eight years ago, consider this your warning.

It goes to show how individual fear can be. In real life, my greatest sources of fear aren't about being in physical danger, they’re about the possibility of disruptions of the mind and senses- loss of self-control, delusion, reality around me dissolving into incomprehensible chaos because I’ve lost my ability to reason. For me, nothing is scarier than that, because there is nothing else that can render you so utterly helpless. Most of my favorite horror movies, such as Jacob's Ladder and In the Mouth of Madness, involve these sorts of themes. Metal Gear Solid 2 is one of the relatively few games that does this, and it takes it to a much deeper, more disturbing level than something like Eternal Darkness.

So, I'm playing as main character Raiden: elite spy, warrior, and Japanese market-friendly blond pretty boy. I'm fighting my way through the Big Shell installation, battling heavily armed terrorists, the elite rogue agents of Dead Cell, and the hostile work environment created by the grossly inappropriate workplace sexual advances of the President of the United States. Then, things start to get strange. Weird, inexplicable stuff starts happening, Colonel Campbell and Rose start sending me bizarre, threatening, or outright nonsensical codec messages, and things just become generally bizarre and confusing.

My straightforward, comprehensible, and above all rational (by Metal Gear Solid standards) military action-adventure turns into a nightmare of paranoia, delusion, and dissociation. People I’ve trusted and grown accustomed to suddenly have different personalities and are saying things that make no sense. Normal, comfortable, predictable conventions of reality (like the Game Over screen) are suddenly confusing and not behaving as they should. I’m being told I’m not really who I think I am and that my own past may be a lie. The lines between reality and fantasy are blurring or collapsing entirely, both within the universe of the game (suggestions that Raiden is actually in VR, the eventual revelations about the true nature of Raiden's mission) and beyond it (the Colonel telling Raiden to turn the game off).

My friends, my own sense of identity, my sensory perceptions, reality itself are not to be trusted. The eventual explanation for these phenomenon- the malfunction of Arsenal Gear's artificial intelligence- brings no consolation, and does nothing to make reality any more solid. The people I thought were my friends really are lying to me and conspiring against me. I really have been stripped of my free will by hostile outside forces. The world I inhabit really is an illusion, meant to deceive and control me. All sorts of seemingly unrelated phenomena really are consciously directed at me, personally. All the events I experience really are caused by the machinations of a powerful, hostile intelligence that controls everything around me. The sort of nightmarish world some people in the throes of severe mental illness imagine is the world I actually live in.

I found it incredibly creepy and disturbing. I’m being attacked by terrorists or Harrier jets or a portly mad bomber on roller skates- fine. I can evade physical attacks. I can kill them before they kill me. There’s nothing to dodge or run from or kill when rational, comprehensible reality itself is falling apart around me. If you're feeling immersed in the game, it can be quite an intense experience.

People who like Metal Gear Solid 2’s story and atmosphere usually cite its postmodern elements- removal of the fourth wall, commentary on the nature and conventions of its own medium, hyperreality. I find those aspects interesting, but I think discussion of the game has placed so much focus on subtext that people largely disregard what a more straightforward look can offer. Much of the later part of the game, if considered not in its role as commentary on gaming but simply as a depiction of events experienced by the protagonist, is a rather chilling portrayal of going insane.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Luckily, German already has a fifteen-syllable word for "feelings of dismay and frustration felt after ill-conceived PR fiasco"

In Germany, an organization called Aktionsbündnis Amoklauf Winnenden apparently had a disappointing turnout for a recent event encouraging people to bring in and throw away their violent video games, presumably to be destroyed. Germany, which has historically censored video games to a greater degree than most Western countries, has seen a burst of political hostility to video games in recent months (previously referenced in this post) due to real-life violence that has been blamed on them.

Since this is an article involving both Germany and the public ritual disposal of disapproved cultural artifacts, it's traditional to offer some dire warning about burning books, or the Martin Niemoller quote about not speaking out when they came for the trade unionists, or what have you, but lets skip the preliminaries and cut to the chase. So, in that spirit, do you know who else didn’t enjoy playing video games? Hitler. Admittedly, that’s because they didn’t exist at the time, what with the difficulties faced by the industry back when computers weighed several tons and the installed base was limited to military cryptographers, but it's not as if reductio ad Hitlerum arguments need to actually make sense.

I don't know if the fizzling of this event has any larger meaning, but I find it heartening. It wasn't all that long ago that American events dedicated to the public destruction of heavy metal albums, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia, and other items that people associated with Satanism and the occult actually drew crowds. You don't hear much today about the state of gibbering pants-wetting hysteria over the Satanic Cultist, Child Abduction, Ritual Abuse, Human Infant Sacrifice, and Socially Marginalized Low-Status Young Male Weirdo Menace that gripped much of the United States in the 1980s, but it wascertainly a force at the time. (It was sort of like the collective national equivalent of spending a brief stint in the Church of Scientology or taking prescription antibiotics for what people used to call a "loathsome disease": it's briefly the most important thing in your life, and then you never, ever speak of it again.) Thus, the disappointing turnout seems like at least potentially a good sign.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dynasty Warriors and exploding heads, together at last!

If you've ever found yourself playing Dynasty Warriors and thought, "You know, this is fun, but it would be a lot better if my character had the power to make an enemy's pancreas dissolve," your lucky day has arrived. Also, seek help.

Koei has announced a forthcoming spinoff of its popular Dynasty Warriors series that will be based on the manga and anime series Fist of the North Star, to be entitled Hokuto Musou. Fist of the North Star is one of the canonical works of the vibrant "huge guys screaming at each other" genre of anime, so let's hope Koei does it justice. True to the insanely violent style of the source material, Koei is promising "a myriad of devastating fighting techniques" that will let the player make his enemies "violently explode on screen." As an extra bonus for those of you who've become bored with wimpy, Disneyfied kiddy games like Mortal Kombat that limit you to mundane atrocities like impalement, decapitation, and bludgeoning people to death with a war hammer constructed from their own spinal column, Hokuto Musou will also give you the power to inflict "instantaneous breakdown of internal organs" on your foes.

(Which isn't as hard to do as it sounds, actually. In the game, you'll presumably be shredding people's insides through the awesome might of the the series' eponymous Hokuto Shinken fighting style, which assails your foe's pressure points to channel chi energy that tears him apart from the inside out, but getting someone to drink about half a bottle of Miller Chill will have roughly the same effect. Admittedly, there are moral concerns raised by this method, since rending someone's bowels asunder with a secret forbidden martial art invented by ancient Chinese assassins is far less cruel and inhumane.)

The Fist of the North Star animated movie was the first anime I ever saw; I stumbled upon it by sheer chance as kid when I was flipping channels out of boredom and reached a local UHF station that would play anime late at night. (Though this was back when people were still calling it "Japanimation.") They had to censor out nudity and graphic violence, of course, which in this case meant that at any given time about three-fourths of the screen would be pixelated out to protect my fragile young psyche from the endless procession of exploding heads and splattering chunks of people that dominate
Fist of the North Star's running time. And yet, it piqued my interest enough to see what they were showing next week, and from that searing crucible of blurred-out violence, incomprehensible subplots, and bellowing post-apocalyptic muscle men, my interest in anime was forged.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

100 quatloos on the long-running series!

Via Kotaku: Apparently, there are actually people who place bets on video game sales. Paddy Power, which I was disappointed to discover is just the name of Ireland's biggest online gambling company and not a masked crime fighter with whiskey-based superpowers, is giving 11/8 odds that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will be this year’s highest-selling game in the United Kingdom. So, if your pathologically thrill-seeking personality has led you to become both a hardcore video game fan and a degenerate gambler, and you're longing to somehow combine your twin compulsions to fulfill your desperate need for ever-larger torrents of dopamine sloshing through your increasingly desensitized central nervous system, problem solved.

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Super Street Fighter IV announced, beloved Indian stereotype T. Hawk to make triumphant return

Capcom will be following up Street fighter IV with Super Street Fighter IV, which will offer game balance tweaks based on player feedback and eight additional characters. It will be sold as a stand-alone game rather than a download, but apparently won't cost the usual full price for a new game and will have a special bonus for people who already have the original version. I'm glad to to see Capcom isn't going the George Lucas "Buy the Star Wars trilogy for the eighth time, this version removes about half of the annoying crap that was added to the seventh version, has slightly different light saber sound effects, and includes a new scene at the climax of Return of the Jedi where the ghost of Mace Windu appears in the Death Star throne room and calls the Emperor a 'Sith motherfucker'" route.

That said, while it looks like this game will have a respectable amount of new content, I'm hoping we don't see a repetition of the seemingly endless series of variants of Street Fighter II that appeared in the 90's, when Capcom decided to forego making a new game in favor of simply adding more and more adjectives to Street Fighter II. By the time the year 2015 rolls around I want to be playing Street Fighter V, not Super Street Fighter IV Callipygian Turbo Championship Anarcho-Syndicalist Perfect Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Edition. Though if they did make that, I'd at least rent it so I could hear the Street Fighter announcer guy bellow the entire thing when the game starts.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

The horror... The motion-sensitive horror...

Time for a bit of a change of pace on Pointless Side Quest as we take a break from the usual inane anecdotes, tawdry filth, and blatant lying that usually fill this space for a foray into actual commentary about gaming. Found via Kotaku: In an interview with Gamepro, JU-ON: The Grudge game project manager Makoto Chida said the following:

We believe that the Wii is the most ideal console to experience horror games and started development of this title under that premise. If the Wii did not exist, I don't think that we would have ever developed this game.
This touched off some controversy in the comments at the Kotaku post where I first found the quote, but I think he’s got an interesting idea. Horror, it seems to me, is precisely the genre of game best suited to exploiting the Wii’s strengths and minimizing the effects of its weaknesses.

For one thing, Wii’s lesser graphical power is not the same sort of handicap in horror as in other genres. In an action game, I’m thrilled by what I see. If I’m playing a first-person shooter game, for instance, I like the best graphics possible because a gunfight is so visual: bullets streaking through the air, stuff blowing up, bodies flying, my idiot squadmates wandering into my line of fire, etc.

On the other hand, horror is probably better-suited than any other genre to draw power from sound- creepy music, eerie ambient noises, and such. Horror can also get a lot of effect from pacing, knowing when to tensely draw things out and when to abruptly jolt you, and that’s not a matter of technical power. One of the most memorable moments I’ve had in a horror game was the “corpse in the bathtub” hallucination in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. It wasn’t effective because it was shown in particularly impressive graphic detail, it was effective because I was calmly going about my business in what I thought was an eerie but fairly safe place and was OH GOD THAT’S MY OWN CORPSE suddenly struck when I didn’t anticipate it.

Furthermore, unlike action/adventure, horror is often exciting not because of what I see but because of what I don’t see. Often the greatest fear comes from the unknown, from ignorance, from sensing that there’s something out there but not being able to see it clearly, hence the venerable horror movie practice of not showing the monster too early, or showing it only in brief flashes that don’t let you get a clear view. Again, having maximum visual quality is less of a concern, because the unspeakable abominations trying to kill me are often scarier when I can’t get a clear, detailed look at them.

Horror can also get a lot of mileage out of written or voice recordings through the common device of the protagonist finding logs or records left by previous victims, or by the people who originally created or unleashed whatever the antagonist of the game is. You probably know the type if you've played Resident Evil or the like: “Dr. Aronson’s log, day 32. Subject Gamma has now grown to a mass of almost 250 kilograms. Showing increasing signs of awareness. Have expressed concerns about possible errors in translation of Sumerian necromantic ritual being used in experiments, but Dr. Harris says current phase of experiments must be completed before end of fiscal year. Shot down by Jenny the lab receptionist when I suggested trip to Olive Garden, says she has been plagued by recurring nightmares of a colossal beast with my face and a locust’s body chasing her through the lab while chanting blasphemous hymns to Yog-Sothoth in the voice of her deceased mother. Fourth girl in administrative staff to give me this excuse in past month; am considering switching to new brand of cologne. Log ends.”

It’s a cliché, but it’s repeated enough to become a cliché because when done well it really works. You can create a lot of mood and atmosphere through simple text, regardless of technological power.

The motion controls have interesting potential, too. Fear is a very physical emotion, affecting blood flow, muscle tension, metabolism, and biochemistry, and so horror is a genre of entertainment you experience with your body as well as your mind more than just about any other. I experience growing fear not just from my conscious thoughts, but from the sensation of my own heart thudding or my hands trembling as tension grows. The first time I saw the previously mentioned bathtub scene, I didn’t just think, “Gee, that’s scary!” I physically leapt in my seat, as if recoiling from actual danger.

Thus, I think controls that bring the player’s body more directly into the experience could have a profound effect for horror. There are limitations to how much can be done with a simple motion-sensitive hand controller, but the simple fact that the Wii controls encourage the player to get up and move about while playing could potentially add a lot, just by making the player more aware of his body.

Oddly enough, the traits that make the Wii a good potential home for horror games are the same factors that have made it the dominant system for casual and family-oriented games: the motion controls catch the interest of people inexperienced with gaming through their novelty and intuitive nature, and many of the games occupy niches that have been traditionally dominated by much lower-tech activities like board games, where looking fabulous isn’t a big issue.

This is a fly in the ointment. The Wii has opened up a huge market of people newly introduced to video games with a family-friendly image and lots of games that non-gamers can quickly pick up and enjoy, at the cost of neglecting and to some extent alienating more dedicated gamers. (I don’t like the common “hardcore/causal” terminology, both because of its imprecision and because of the self-congratulatory mine-is-bigger-than-yours way it is often used. If something is calling itself “hardcore,” it better involve either nudity, Mick Foley being chokeslammed through the roof of a steel cage, or a band of burly, tattooed New Yorkers with guitars screaming at me about Ronald Reagan.) Thus, I would expect big fans of something like survival horror to be underrepresented among Wii players.

So, ironically, the same attributes that make the Wii a natural home for horror games also give it an image that will tend to discourage horror game fans and an existing player base that will tend to discourage horror game developers. The canceled survival horror game Winter, which apparently would have heavily exploited the Wii motion controls to create the sort of physical immersion I’m talking about, was a casualty of this; the game received positive responses at presentations and pitches, but never saw a release because publishers didn’t think such a dark game would sell on the Wii. Both problems are mutually reinforcing- no horror games means no horror gamers means no horror games and so on and on forever like some horrible camp sing-along. That’s a real shame, because I think there’s a lot of potential there.

You know, when I started, I honestly hadn’t intended for this post to end on such a downbeat note, though given how ubiquitous the surprise downer ending is in modern horror I suppose it’s appropriate. Or it would be, if the surprise downer ending hadn’t become so clichéd and predictable that it hasn’t actually surprised anyone since the 1970s.

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