Monthly Archives: July 2012

Psychonauts (2005)

How should game developers rectify that players will forever exist in two universes at once, remaining in the real world while engaging with a virtual one? Even the most elaborate role-players still must sit on the couch with controller in hand; no matter how much you want to fully take the leap, one foot stays planted in reality. Many games acknowledge this problem by creating similarly dichotomous settings, from the terrifying secrets within the pristine walls of Aperture Science and Black Mesa to the Zelda series’ obsession with a “dark” world lurking beneath our own. Smart games embrace a disconnect within their universes, recognizing that true immersion is easier said than done. However, these games often cast us as soldiers of truth, the only ones who can see behind the curtain and expose the world’s falsities. Far fewer titles look inward, embracing that our own perception might be just as flawed as everyone else’s. Engaging with a game – wanting to explore the fictional space of another’s creation – expresses some desire, no matter how slight, to disassociate one’s point of view from the rules of reality. Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts takes place almost entirely in this space between “truth” and perception. Continue reading

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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

An impressively constructed RPG with some serious storytelling issues.

My favorite moment in any piece of Star Wars media comes early in Return of the Jedi. When Luke Skywalker attempts to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, he must face a hideous beast called the Rancor. It’s an ugly, unsympathetic monster, the kind that lives in a dank, bone-filled cave and devours innocents for the amusement of its master. Naturally, Luke handily defeats the creature and is soon whisked away to new adventures and trials. But not everyone can part with the dead quite so quickly, and a fat, half-dressed man begins to weep for the fallen Rancor. Whether this man considered the creature a pet or a friend is unclear, and the moment not only hilariously undermines our expectations for the scene, but also achieves something legitimately sweet and sad as we consider a loss that is literally alien to us.

This is the way I think Star Wars works best, in individual moments that achieve something at once bizarre, awe-striking, and unselfconsciously goofy. I’m thinking of things like the cantina scene, the twin sunset, Luke’s first moments with Yoda. So it’s a shame that for all its flights of fancy, Star Wars interprets creativity in the most literal way possible, as in, “making a bunch of shit up”; there is almost no experimentation with form throughout the saga, no interest in the abstract or thematic beyond its much-ballyhooed Joseph Campbell legwork. Continue reading

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Portal (2007)

I told myself I wouldn’t, but screw it: This was a triumph.

What are video games if not the ultimate expression of technology for its own sake? If NASA first got to the moon with the processing ability of an iPhone, how ludicrous is it that we spend so much time and computing power rendering ever-higher-defintion space marines and dragonslayers so we can play make-believe for an afternoon? This is an industry where “new” is often shown off in place of actual content, and sometimes the benefits that innovation will bring to the medium seem like a mystery to even those developing them. Look at the dismal software line-up rushed out for potentially interesting hardware like the Wii U, or go back to past console failures like the Virtual Boy: game creators have an obsession with being first, even when they don’t fully understand what “being first” entails.

The folks at Aperture Science could certainly relate to this problem; it probably even crossed a few of their minds as a killer AI flooded their facility with deadly neurotoxin. (At least when Nintendo falters, they only have to worry about sales dips and snarky blog write-ups.) Continue reading

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Ico (2001)

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Man likes well-regarded game; footage at eleven.

How does one end a game like Shadow of the Colossus with any semblance of hope? The story climaxes in a catastrophe caused entirely by your character‘s actions, not only eternally sealing off your now-demonic person but abandoning the woman you swore to save in a desolate valley with little hope of escape. It’s a gut punch of a finale, and its inevitability does not detract from its mournful and sour taste. Yet Fumito Ueda and his team are too smart and too human to believe you can end a masterstroke with a one-note, soul-stomping dirge, and as the credits roll, we can’t help but feel a shred of hope for the world they created. Perhaps it’s as simple as the mood set by Kow Otani’s score, or that we are grateful to spend a few more minutes gawking at the game’s lush scenery. But for fans of Ueda’s previous title, there is one overriding reason we believe all might not be lost: he reincarnated Wander as a boy with horns. Continue reading

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