Friday, July 30, 2010

At last, the game that will convince Roger Ebert that games are art

Above: A man who is ready and willing to listen to what I have to say, because -- no, seriously, listen.

A few months ago, Roger Ebert wrote the stupidest thing any Pulitzer Prize winner has written, at least since The Hours. This asshole actually said that video games are not, and can never be, art. (Not going to link him -- don't want to give him the traffic.) Can you believe this idiot?

To his credit, Ebert walked back his argument later, saying that while he, personally, does not give a shit if video games are art or ever could be art, he hasn't played enough to speak knowledgably on the subject.

Like we're going to let him get away with that.

I have just the game that will steer Ebert away from the dark path he walks. The game that will convince him not only that games are art, but that they have always been art, and always will be art, and will never not be art. A downloadable game has just come out that proves, once and for all, the incredible depth and meaning even the smallest games can possess. A work of uncommon subtlety and insight, it will convince even the lowliest, most wheelchair-bound, most unable-to-talk-anymore cretin that video games are art.

You know the game I mean. Roger Ebert needs to play Hydro Thunder Hurricane.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane uses well-worn gameplay tropes as a Trojan horse to deliver an army of metaphors into the walled city of your brain. Consider: Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a racing game. What else is a race? Working life is often called the "rat race." The Amazing Race is an Emmy-winning TV show. Politicians are always talking about the importance of race relations. (I'm not sure what this means??? I think it has to do with Nascar fans not getting along with Formula One fans.) Already you see how Hydro Thunder Hurricane is brimming with allusions to some of the core aspects of our humanity, not unlike other things that jerks like Roger Ebert would say are art, such as movies and books.

As the name implies, Hydro Thunder takes place on the water. ("Hydro" means "water," Roger. See? Games can be educational!) Maybe that's why it's so deep -- pun intended! Most of the courses aren't circular in this game. They have distinct start and end points, which are meant to represent birth and death, respectively. Each track is full of shortcuts, which are fun to find but which all lead to the same place. Isn't this like life itself? We all take our own paths -- maybe I'm a blogger, maybe you're a pompous movie critic who keeps talking shit about stuff he knows NOTHING about -- but in the end we all die. (Some of us hopefully sooner than others!)

Nor is the path to the finish line calm or smooth. Your hovercraft (representing you) is buffeted by wind and waves as you head toward the finish line (which is death, remember). The symbolism of the turbulent racing surface is clear: the waves represent the inherent uncertainty of our daily lives. We try to outrun our problems, but the faster we go, the choppier they get, and the more of their salty spray gets in our eyes, which makes it look like we're crying even though it's just because the saltwater stings. They're not real tears.

You can pick up "boost," which helps you get to the end faster, but is that such a good thing? And is it a coincidence that the boost is depicted in the shape of bottles? The bottle has had ruinous consequences for many people, most of whom were using it just to get through to another finish line (the end of the workday, say, or a long car ride). It was a brave choice of developer Vector Unit to tackle such a debilitating social ill, but I would argue that this is one of the noblest purposes of true art.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane toys with the emotions of the player -- it is at times beautiful and at times terrifying. The player runs the emotional gamut by the time it is over, and is left considering the consequences of what has just occurred. It is a difficult game, but there has never been one quite like it that so effectively communicates this trying world to the person who is experiencing it.

It is the kind of game that changes who we are. It tailors us; puts us in a place that is far away from where we were before we encountered it. And you can't say that about many things.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Above: Death, spankings.

My review of DeathSpank is up at This was a terrific game. While I focused mostly on the humor in my review, I'd also like to mention how great-looking it is.

Remember the graphical arms race that marked every new console launch for years? My memory of the 16- and 32-bit generations contains lists of how many colors a system could display, how many polygons it could process (flat-shaded or texture-mapped), and how many special effects it could handle in hardware (alas, the Sega Saturn couldn't do transparencies!). Every mention of video game systems was about graphics.

Since the launch of HD-compatible systems, the cries of the graphics hawks have mostly been silenced -- perhaps because the best-selling console of this generation is emphatically not HD-compatible, or perhaps because graphics really are good enough at this point. They will continue to improve, and I'll welcome that, but today's games are making bigger strides in areas besides the visual.

The war cry always was that graphics are no substitute for good game play. Now that battle has been won. But it's also not the whole story. Raw graphical processing power is no substitute for good gameplay. Inspired, visually appealing art is a huge asset for any game. Sometimes it still can overwhelm a player's better judgment when the gameplay is less than ideal. (But we'll talk about Limbo another time.)

DeathSpank isn't just funny and fun to play, it also shows you interesting things all the time. The cotton candy-colored enchanted forest, the glowing orange demon mines, the fetid green swamps -- these are all equal to the zaniness of the story and the dialogue. The graphics amplify what's happening in the game; they don't overwhelm it.

One last point on this: it's interesting that you have to go to the budget space to find games that take risks with their art direction. The majority of AAA console titles all strive for realism. It works for some of them (the fidelity of Red Dead Redemption gave the proceedings the right measure of seriousness), but it's astonishing how many games about alien worlds and altered dimensions are incapable of imagining anything but gray industrial corridors. I guess it's a risky business move to delight your audience.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My superpower is running and hiding

Above: Because a Google image search for "Crackdown 2" yielded nothing.

One more note on Crackdown 2.

We talk a lot -- or we used to talk a lot -- about ludonarrative dissonance. In laymen's terms, it means a conflict between a game's story and the mechanics the game uses to tell that story. A recent example is Uncharted 2: in cutscenes, Nathan Drake is a charming everyman, sheepish and gentle, and in gameplay he's an unstoppable killing machine.

It might be hard to see how a game such as Crackdown 2 can have ludonarrative dissonance when there's almost no narrative to speak of, but it's there. The point of this game is that you are a badass. Right? That's the whole of it. You are a one-man wrecking crew who becomes a one-man army. Forget a plot about freaks and gangs -- that's the story.

But playing as a badass is often not the best way to progress. One of the objectives in the game is to capture tactical locations held by gangs. It's pretty simple: you find an area, trigger the scenario, and then kill a certain number of bad guys. Eventually the game will tell you that you have been successful.

In my time with the game, I found that there were lots of ways to fail at this. Charging in and trying to punch the gang members, for example. Trying to throw things at them rarely worked. Tossing explosives was okay if I was in range. But generally speaking, no matter how powerful I thought I was, if I went right into the hornet's nest, I was toast. (Especially since, thanks to the wonky targeting lock-on, it was all too easy to accidentally shoot a nearby explosive barrel instead of the bad guy behind it.)

Eventually I discovered that the best way to lock down a tactical location was to play it cowardly. I disappeared around corners, popping out just long enough to plug one enemy before seeking cover again. This was time consuming, and hardly ever fun, but it was the most effective way I found to accomplish my objective. Once I found it, I had little incentive to keep experimenting.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a game about a character who uses the environment to his defensive advantage. Here it doesn't make sense. One of the things I liked so much about Prototype was the extent to which it encouraged you do to absolutely anything you could think of with all the crazy powers it bestowed upon you. In Crackdown 2, you can safely ignore most of them. What good is that?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's a number 2 all right

My review of Crackdown 2 is up now at

I liked the first Crackdown even before it was cool, with the added cred of not having played it to get a Halo 3 beta code. Time has been kind to that game: in my mind, it's grown in stature to be one of the best of this generation. Three and a half years later, it's just about the only non-new game I still take for a ride once in awhile. I'm still hunting for that last freaking agility orb.

So obviously, as a raging fanboy, I'm a candidate to love the sequel. Or, wait, am I a candidate for being unnecessarily critical? I can't keep these things straight. I'm even sympathetic to Lewis Denby's thesis on sequel syndrome, that sequels definitionally cannot be as good as the original because they lack the element of surprise. (Even though his primary example of BioShock 2 is one of the worst he could have given. That game rocked.)

In every big way, Crackdown 2 is identical to the original. None of the major mechanics have been overhauled. And there is that twinge of familiarity, especially since the game takes place, once again, in Pacific City. Isn't it strange, though: when I play the original Crackdown, familiarity is exactly what I want. It was new once, and it isn't now, and that's what I still like about it. When I played Crackdown 2, I didn't exactly feel thrilled to be back, but neither was I disappointed.

There are lots of tweaks to the sequel though, nearly all for the worse. Contra Joystick Division, I didn't feel the game was too open; I felt hemmed in by the hands of the designers. I felt like they (or their surrogates, like the narrator) were constantly butting in. In the original game, if you couldn't reach an agility orb, you knew because it was too high to reach. In the sequel, you might see a message onscreen that you need to be at a higher agility level. Thanks for bursting my bubble.

At one point, I grabbed something called an "ultra assault rifle," and laid waste to an underground horde of mutants. Nice. Then I took it back to one of my tactical locations so that I could store it for later use. Sorry, some onscreen text informed me, you need to be at a higher firearms level before you can store this weapon.


This I don't get at all. If I'm not powerful enough to use the weapon, find a good reason not to let me use it. Don't arbitrarily prevent me from saving it. What's the concern here? That I might become too powerful too early? Isn't that the point of the game? This stuff never happened in the first Crackdown.